I just finished my last semester of law school midterms (yippee) one of which was constitutional law, specifically on the freedom of speech under the first amendment….therefore I felt this case was particularly on point to my personal circumstances, and who doesn’t love a good zombie tale?! In any event, in case you were wondering, zombies are not afforded the same first amendment freedoms as the living! I am only kidding, there’s no such thing as zombies…..right?
In late January of this year, six plaintiffs (Chris Irwin, Bonnie Swinford, Matt Jones, Ricki Draper, Mark Homer and Margaret Rogers) filed lawsuits against Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a government owned corporation that provides power and electricity to over 9 million citizens in seven southeastern states.
According to the plaintiffs, the federal utility company violated their first amendment rights by requesting they leave an August 2011 board meeting because the claimants were dressed in costume; Irwin wore a suit and had “zombie” makeup, Draper dressed as Santa Claus, Homer dressed as Benjamin Franklin and Rogers as a pirate. The group was there to speak out against TVA’s plans to build the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in northern Alabama, but the costumes were worn for a much different purpose.
After addressing the board members, Matt Jones made a joke about zombies and an accompanying groaning noise, symbolic of that of a zombie, I suppose. The board, not taking kindly to his humor asked that he leave. Following Jones’s “show”, Bonnie Swinford, fearful for arrest, changed her plans to speak, and thus her speech was suppressed, according to the complaint.
According to TVA counsel, Maria Gillen, costume wearing was not protected under the first amendment because it lacked the element of conveying a message that would be easily understood. Whether or not the message was readily understandable is up for debate, however it is interesting that the no-costume-policy was implemented just shortly before the Knoxville protest and after a similar display at a demonstration in Chattanooga against the same Bellefonte project. Citizens allegedly refer to the Bellefonte project as the “zombie reactor” hence the original zombie costumes.
TVA filed a motion to dismiss in District Court whereas plaintiffs are seeking default judgment against TVA for the alleged first amendment violations. Plaintiffs’ counsel, Keith Edgar Lowe, insists that the costumes worn at the Knoxville meeting had nothing to do with the Bellefonte project but was a direct demonstration against the newly implemented no-costume policy which directly abridges the speech rights of citizens.
Due to the complex constitutional issues involved in the case, U.S. District court judge Tena Campbell has estimated that her ruling would be out in approximately six weeks.
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