Session September 5, 2017
from the Circuit Court for Franklin County No. 2016-CV-170
Justin C. Angel, Judge
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.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit
Court Reversed; Case Remanded
H. Castelli, Nashville, Tennessee, and Gregory F. Laufer and
Stephen C. Thompson, New York, New York, for the appellant,
Christopher P. Westmoreland, Shelbyville, Tennessee, for the
appellee, Robert Weidlich.
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.
MICHAEL SWINEY, CHIEF JUDGE.
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.
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
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
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?
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?
Q. Was she a public figure?
Q. Did that concern you --
Q. -- that the wife of the same man that made this speech was
running for the school board?
Q. Did you consider yourself as a blogger to have a mission
as a public person?
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 ...