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Weidlich v. Rung

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

October 26, 2017

ROBERT WEIDLICH
v.
LISA RUNG

          Session September 5, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Franklin County No. 2016-CV-170 Justin C. Angel, Judge

         This appeal concerns a defamation claim. Lisa Rung ("Rung") put up a Facebook post featuring a photograph of the back of Robert Weidlich ("Weidlich")'s vehicle. Weidlich's vehicle had a number of bumper stickers on it, some of which incorporated the Confederate Battle Flag. Along with the photograph, Rung asserted in her Facebook post that the Weidlichs were "white supremacist[s]." Weidlich sued Rung for defamation in a case eventually tried before the Circuit Court for Franklin County ("the Trial Court"). After trial, the Trial Court entered judgment in favor of Weidlich and awarded him damages. Rung appeals. We hold that Rung's Facebook post, viewed in its entire context, constitutes non-actionable commentary upon disclosed facts. We reverse the judgment of the Trial Court.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed; Case Remanded

          Thomas H. Castelli, Nashville, Tennessee, and Gregory F. Laufer and Stephen C. Thompson, New York, New York, for the appellant, Lisa Rung.

          Christopher P. Westmoreland, Shelbyville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Robert Weidlich.

          D. Michael Swiney, C.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., and W. Neal McBrayer, J., joined.

          OPINION

          D. MICHAEL SWINEY, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Background

         This matter has its roots in a public controversy regarding the formation of a Gay/Straight Alliance at Franklin County High School. In February 2016, Rung, Weidlich, and approximately 300 other people attended a meeting of the Franklin County School Board. According to Rung, Weidlich attended the meeting and, to Rung's chagrin, expressed strong opposition to the formation of a Gay/Straight Alliance. Due to certain alleged outlandish comments from Weidlich, some people began referring mockingly to the Weidlichs as "the Fisty Family." Around this time, Weidlich's wife, Loretta Weidlich, made tentative plans to run for the Franklin County School Board, a bid that would impact the events of this case.

         Following another meeting of the Franklin County School Board, Rung spotted Weidlich's vehicle in the parking lot. The back of Weidlich's vehicle featured several bumper stickers. One of the bumper stickers displayed a Confederate Battle Flag next to the word "SECEDE." Another read "God, Family, The South, " next to another Confederate Battle Flag. Yet another one read "The League of the South." The Weidlich's family name also was spelled out above what appears to be a cartoon version of the family. Rung took a photograph of the back of Weidlich's vehicle. Rung later put up a Facebook post featuring the photograph she had taken, along with the statement: "Free Bonus Prize. The Fisty Family are also white supremacist! We'll need to keep this handy come election time."

         In April 2016, Weidlich sued Rung for defamation based upon the Facebook post. This matter initially was tried in General Sessions Court. The General Sessions Court ruled in favor of Rung, finding that Weidlich had been unable to establish damages. Weidlich appealed to the Trial Court. This matter was tried anew in September 2016, and we summarize the pertinent testimony.

         Rung testified as to why she made the Facebook post, as follows:

Q. In any event, at a subsequent meeting -- public meeting at the school board about a month later, did you happen to observe the back of the vehicle that had a license plate and had a certain -- certain marks on the back of it?
A. Yes.
Q. And what was on the back of the vehicle?
A. Well, it had the "Weidlich family" on it. That's how I knew it was his car. And it had the League of the South which I knew was considered a hate group.
Q. Insofar as Mr. Weidlich's wife was involved, it's a fact, was she running for school board?
A. Yes.
Q. Was she a public figure?
A. Yes.
Q. Did that concern you --
A. Yes.
Q. -- that the wife of the same man that made this speech was running for the school board?
A. Yes.
Q. Did you consider yourself as a blogger to have a mission as a public person?
A. Yes.
Q. What did you consider your responsibility?
A. That the voters had a right to know what people stood for and what they believed.
Q. Was that your motivation in doing that?
A. Yes. That's what it says this whole election time. That's what this ...

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