A second lawsuit has now been filed against the City of Crossville in federal court. This lawsuit filed by J. R. Blankenship for the violation of his first amendment rights also names former city councilman Jesse Kerley and Ivy Gardner as individuals.
The suit stems from the charges of distributing unsigned fliers that resulted in a citation to Crossville city court alleging a violation of a city ordinance that led to a $1500 fine levied against Blankenship by city judge Ivy Gardner. The suit points out that such a charge was determined to be a violation of the first amendment in a case decided before the US Supreme Court in 1960. Crossville's ordinance was approved sometime after the 1960 decision.
J. R. Blankenship expressing his opinions in mid 2016
The flier that lead to Blankenship's charges
The 18 page complaint begins by outlining a series of events that lead to the filing of the suit. The story begins with an incident that took place January 2015 at a convenience store involving a dog tied up outside the store and in distress according to Blankenship. Blankenship discussed the dog's situation with the store clerk who, it turned out, owned the dog. The clerk took offense at Blankenship's observation and the ensuing argument lead to a 911 call to police by Blankenship. According to the suit, “the police officer rudely accosted Mr. Blankenship as being the aggressor.”
Blankenship wrote a letter of complaint about the incident to each member of the council in March of 2015 and attended council meetings but his complaint was never addressed. Blankenship addressed his complaint at a March 2016 council meeting and was again ignored according to the complaint. The lawsuit states, “Frustrated that the council ignored his complaint, Mr. Blankenship published a flier in which he offered a $500 reward for photos of any elected or appointed Crossville official doing wrong”
The complaint alleges that then councilman Jesse Kerley sought to have Mr. Blankenship cited under the unconstitutional ordinance and claims that then police chief Rodney Shoap was ordered to do so. The complaint cites Shoap's federal lawsuit that says “on multiple occasions, Kerley demanded that (Shoap), without sufficient evidence or probable cause arrest James Blankenship.” Following an investigation into the flier, Blankenship was cited to city court under the unsigned flier ordinance.
An initial court date on the citation was set for May 10, 2016 was continued to June 28 at Blankenship's request and on June 2 while the case was pending before city judge Ivy Gardner, Gardner appeared in General Sessions Court as an individual seeking a restraining order against Blankenship for “a pattern of conduct to harass and unnecessarily alarm” Gardner. The suit sates that at the time Blankenship did believe he had ever seen or met Gardner and that he believes Gardner's complaint against him was made at the suggestion of Mr. Kerley.
The suit states that the action of Gardner was to retaliate against Blankenship for expressing his free speech and free press rights and to intimidate him. The action is also described in the suit as a “conspiracy with defendant Kerley.” The suit also states that Blankenship believes that Kerley spoke to Gardner between March 24 and June 28 concerning a significant fine for Blankenship.
The suit states that Gardner is not being sued for any of her actions as city judge but only for actions she took as an individual outside of her courtroom.
Blankenship appealed the fine as excessive and that the city's ordinance was unconstitutional that violated his right to free speech. The fine and conviction were dismissed with prejudice by the Circuit Court on November 17, 2016. It should also be noted that since this action took place the city has takne action to remove the unconstitutional ordinance from its books.
Blankenship also appealed the restraining order given to Gardner and filed interrogatories and requests to produce documents to provide information to support her claims of his harassment. Those discovery requests were never answered. Two weeks before a hearing on the appeal was scheduled, Ms. Gardner filed a motion and order of non-suit withdrawing her complaint against Blankenship.
The suit reads, “The issuance of the citation, persecution and conviction of Mr. Blankenship for an unconstitutional and unenforceable Crossville city ordinance caused Mr. Blankenship embarrassment, anxiety, time and money. Defendant Crossville is therefore liable to Mr. Blankenship for the violation of his civil rights under color of law.”
“The first amendment right to criticize public officials is well established and supported by case law and it is also well established that a public official's retaliation against an individual exercising his or her first amendment rights is a violation,” says the lawsuit.
Blankenship's suit is requesting a “declaratory and injunctive relief to declare the earlier actions illegal and enjoin defendants and their agents from otherwise retaliating against him for exercising his first amendment rights either by arresting him or threatening to arrest him and specifically so that he may publish fliers and circular them in Crossville, even if critical of public officials.”
Damages listed in the suit include legal and court costs, embarrassment, mental anguish and anxiety, fear of future reprisal, being deprived of his right to exercise First Amendment freedoms of speech and press and attorney and litigation costs of these proceedings. The suit asks that a jury award damages to compensate his harm in a reasonable amount.
The suit asks for punitive damages against Mr. Kerley “because his actions were malicious and done with intent to intimidate and harm Mr. Blankenship.”
The law suit is filed on behalf of Mr. Blankenship by attorneys Edmund J. Schmidt III and Joseph H. Johnston, both of Nashville.