It Shouldn’t Be a Crime to Make Fun of Your State Representative. In Tennessee, It Is.
If you decide that you’ve had enough of the nonsense in Nashville and you send postcards to potential voters claiming your representative “has cauliflower for brains”—or if you publish or distribute any other “campaign literature in opposition to any candidate in any election” that you know to be false—police can arrest you for committing a Class C misdemeanor, lock you in a cage for a month, and fine you for every postcard you send. Frighteningly, if Tennessee House Representative Karen Camper (D-Memphis) and Tennessee Senator Reginald Tate (D-Memphis) get their way, the “crime” of distributing false campaign literature would be elevated to a Class A misdemeanor, allowing the state to lock you up for nearly a year.
What country is this, and what happened to America?
The often-misunderstood Citizens United v. FEC case turns eight years old this year. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects people from being thrown in jail for exercising their right to free speech. What better time is there to explore why the ideas behind Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-19-142 are so bad?
It goes without saying that giving government officials the power to imprison people who criticize or make fun of them is a dangerous, slippery slope. With that context in mind, it is also worth noting that the Camper/Tate bill that the General Assembly is considering this legislative session helps nobody more than it helps Rep. Camper and Sen. Tate. If you can’t write that your representative has cauliflower for brains, what can you write? You can write a bunch of boring technical, legal, or public policy jargon that most people don’t understand. When people read those kinds of things, they either vote for people who already hold office—like Rep. Camper and Sen. Tate—or they get frustrated and don’t vote at all. Either way, incumbents win.
In a case involving an Ohio state law that criminalized political speech the same way that Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-19-142 does, Cato Institute constitutional scholar Ilya Shapiro once argued to the Supreme Court that “‘truthiness’—a ‘truth’ asserted ‘from the gut’ or because it ‘feels right,’ without regard to evidence or logic—is . . . a key part of political discourse.” He also recognized that “the government [is not] well-suited for evaluating when a statement crosses the line into falsehood.” That’s doubly true for people who have both the power to make laws and a personal interest in the outcome of their next election. (And ultimately, Shapiro proved right: Ohio backed away from trying to enforce its unconstitutional law against a nonprofit that wanted to put up a billboard.)
Further, Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-19-142 ignores that saying nasty things about the other guy or gal is as American as apple pie. When Thomas Jefferson ran for president in 1800, he accused President John Adams of “trying to start a war with France,” “importing mistresses from Europe,” and committing that cardinal sin of “trying to marry one of his sons to a daughter of King George.” Adams, a known verbal pugilist, repaid Jefferson in kind, saying that if people elected the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, their homes would spontaneously combust. (And thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, many people now know that Adams also called Alexander Hamilton a “Creole bastard”—but that was actually true!)
If politicians want to literally handcuff themselves from being able to joke about some of the more cartoonish candidates for Tennessee governor and U.S. Senate this year, I suppose they can be my guest—because that’s exactly what Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-19-142 does. Of course, Tennesseans who support sensible election laws shouldn’t let this happen. Vote against Rep. Camper and Sen. Tate in the next election. After all, they have cauliflower for brains.
Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws is a non-partisan, non-profit group of concerned citizens who care about protecting Tennessee’s democratic process. Our mission is to ensure that Tennessee’s election statutes, policies, and regulations protect the rights of all Tennesseans to participate in democracy and support candidates of their choosing without unreasonable governmental interference.
We work toward this mission by supporting pro-democracy candidates for public office, initiating strategic litigation, engaging in direct lobbying, and promoting public awareness. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and please click here to support our work.