Hamblen County Commission chair denied residents free speech rights, suit alleges

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Photo of the one of the “placards” at the center of a lawsuit alleging Hamblen County Commission Chair Howard Shipley denied residents their First Amendment rights. The photo was submitted into the court record.

This article was written by Jamie Satterfield of Tennessee Lookout

Hamblen County Commission Chairman Howard Shipley admitted he violated the free speech rights of citizens, apologized for it, and promised never to do it again.

But less than a year later, court records allege, he did it again. Now, Hamblen County taxpayers are on the hook for the cost of defending him in federal court.

A private attorney — veteran government defender Arthur Knight, III — has been engaged to defend Shipley and his colleagues on the Hamblen County Commission in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court over citizens’ rights to display political messages on their clothing at meetings of the county’s governmental body.

It is litigation that court records show might have been avoided had Shipley honored the promise he made in writing in November 2020  after he ordered citizens protesting the cost of a new jail to either take off t-shirts displaying protest messages or turn them inside out.

“I wrongly prohibited the exercise of freedom of speech and the right to petition the government when I directed that deputies stop individuals wearing a (Citizens for Open and Accountable Government) shirt at the courthouse door and tell the individuals to turn their shirts inside out before being allowed to come to the public meeting,” Shipley wrote in a notarized statement entered into the minutes of a November 2020 commission meeting.

“I do not want to cost Hamblen County taxpayers money in defending a lawsuit that could be brought due to my actions violating the constitutional rights of any citizen,” his statement continued.

Despite that statement, Shipley ordered the same protesting citizens to remove foam squares bearing similar objections to the cost of new jail construction at a commission meeting in September 2021, records show.

Those citizens — identified in the litigation as Hamblen County residents Karen Arwood, Melissa Bellew, Bonnie Bullington, Edna Greene, Gwen Holden, Barbara Lockhart and Linda Noe — are now asking a federal judge to issue a permanent injunction against Shipley and his commission colleagues and award them “nominal damages,” including their attorney’s fees.

Howard Shipley

“This case seeks to protect and vindicate fundamental constitutional rights,” attorney Michael Craig-Grubbs wrote on behalf of the suing citizens. “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides vital protection to free speech, which this case seeks to preserve, protect and uphold … (Shipley and fellow commissioners) engaged in actions, under the color of state law, that operate as a prior restraint on (citizens’) speech by prohibiting (citizens) from displaying messages at public meetings … based on the content and viewpoint of (citizens’) message.”

Knight did not immediately respond to a request for comment on behalf of Shipley and his commission colleagues Thursday.

T-shirts and ‘a dungeon’

The Hamblen County Jail has been a source of controversy and litigation for years. It was featured in a New York Times story in late 2019 as one of the most overcrowded, dilapidated jails in the country, and even Hamblen County Sheriff Esco Jarnigan conceded in that story the facility was “a dungeon.”

An analysis of jail and court records has shown the jail is primarily packed with arrestees awaiting trial and unable to pay high cash bail amounts set without hearings required by state law. Hamblen County is currently embroiled in federal litigation over its bail practices, and a federal judge has already opined in that case that Hamblen County General Sessions Court Judge Doug Collins has been violating state law and the U.S. Constitution by refusing to consider anything but money bail as a condition of pretrial freedom.

After the federal judge’s ruling in 2020 against Collins and his bail practices, the Hamblen County Commission began debating whether to fund construction of a new, bigger jail. Around the same time, a group of Hamblen County citizens formed Citizens for Open and Accountable Government, or COAG.

“COAG is primarily focused on local government matters in Hamblen County, and (the suing citizens) are among the most active members of COAG, attending government meetings, videotaping government meetings and posting information on the COAG Facebook page about local government,” the lawsuit stated.

Members of COAG, including the suing citizens, began in July 2020 wearing T-shirts to commission meetings embossed with a rendering of a newly-constructed high-rise jail and the words, “Just say no! Hamblen County TN ‘Taj Mahal’ jail and justice center. No! No! No! $75 million jail/JC. COAG.”

According to the lawsuit, the T-shirts initially drew no complaints from Shipley or other commission members. That changed in October 2020.

“On Oct. 22, 2020, defendant Howard Shipley, acting through a deputy of the Hamblen County Sheriff’s Department, stopped (the suing citizens) at the courthouse door and demanded that (the citizens) remove, cover or turn inside out the … COAG shirts that (the citizens) were wearing in order to attend a public meeting of the Hamblen County legislative body,” the lawsuit stated.

“They complied by either donning jackets or turning the shirts inside out but spoke against this (T-shirt) rule at that meeting,” the lawsuit continued. “No one, including Shipley, commented.”

The citizens’ group then hired an attorney “who wrote a letter to commission and Mayor Bill Brittain asking that Shipley read a statement of apology into the record at the (next commission) meeting and that his colleagues either censure him or ask that he resign,” the lawsuit stated.

When the November 2020 commission meeting was set to begin, the lawsuit alleges, COAG member Noe was summoned from the audience to Shipley’s commission seat and asked to sign a “release” from liability. She refused and returned to her seat.

Knight, the attorney now representing Shipley and his fellow commissioners, denied in an answer to the lawsuit that Noe was asked to sign a release, but he acknowledged Shipley then read a prepared statement of apology and that his commission colleagues voted to formally censure him for ordering the COAG T-shirts removed. The statement was included as an exhibit in the lawsuit.

In the statement, Shipley conceded COAG members had been wearing the T-shirts since July without issue and that the commission had no rule against the wearing of T-shirts bearing political messages.

“I exceeded my authority in directing the actions of county law enforcement personnel on Oct. 22, 2022,” the statement read.

The suing citizens thereafter continued to appear and speak at commission meetings against the jail and justice center funding proposal without incident, but the peace would not last, according to the lawsuit.

Foam messages

“On Sept. 13, 2021, (suing citizens) Bullington, Greene, Holden and Noe attended (commission) committee meetings while each wore a piece of foam sewn or pinned on their shirts or worn on a ribbon around the neck containing this political message — save $30 million/one-level jail/renovated justice center,” the lawsuit stated.

When Greene approached the lectern to speak during the public comments period, Shipley “demanded that Ms. Greene remove what he termed a ‘placard’ before he would allow her to speak,” the lawsuit stated.

“When Ms. Green refused to remove her ‘placard’ containing a political message, Shipley asked the commissioners present to indicate by a show of hands whether they thought the piece of foam containing a political message was a ‘placard,’” the lawsuit continued.

The lawsuit alleges Commissioner Tim Goins asked a Hamblen County Sheriff’s Office deputy to “escort the young lady” away from the lectern, but the deputy refused.

Shipley then asked his fellow commissioners to approve an unscheduled motion to “refer to the county attorney a request to file suit with any visitor wishing to address the committee that would not remove their placard,” the lawsuit stated. Nine commissioners, including Goins, voted in favor of the unscheduled motion and four opposed.

Attorney Knight denies in the county’s answer that Goins asked a deputy to remove Greene from the lectern but concedes Shipley asked his colleagues to vote in favor of his unscheduled motion.

“Defendant admits only that the political message (on the foam signs) was lawfully and rightly criticized by Mr. Shipley and (Goins) … as it has always been the intent of (Hamblen County government) to provide a neutral forum for public citizens to appropriately comment no matter the issue before the commission as required by local, state and federal law,” Knight wrote.

“It is admitted that the political message was deemed a placard, and that (Noe and fellow COAG members) were asked to remove the placard,” Knight continued. “It is admitted that Mr. Shipley stated that he would entertain a motion referring the controversy to the county attorney. It is admitted that a vote of 9-4 agreed with Mr. Shipley’s suggestion.”

It’s not clear from the litigation if the county attorney sought to take any legal action against the suing citizens as a result of the commission vote. The commission in March voted to indebt citizens via bonds to build a new four-story jail, courtrooms and office space to the tune of at least $50 million to replace the existing jail and justice center.

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Published on June 27, 2022.