Knight v. Montgomery Cnty., No. 3:19-cv-00710

CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Tennessee
Writing for the CourtELI RICHARDSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Citation470 F.Supp.3d 760
Parties Jason KNIGHT, et al., Plaintiffs, v. MONTGOMERY COUNTY, TENNESSEE, Defendant.
Docket NumberNo. 3:19-cv-00710
Decision Date30 June 2020

470 F.Supp.3d 760

Jason KNIGHT, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, TENNESSEE, Defendant.

No. 3:19-cv-00710

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division.

Filed June 30, 2020


470 F.Supp.3d 761

Frank Ross Brazil, Wesley B. Clark, Brazil Clark, PLLC, Nashville, TN, for Plaintiffs.

Rebecca J. Garman, William Timothy Harvey, Harvey & Silvus, Clarksville, TN, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ELI RICHARDSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

470 F.Supp.3d 762

Pending before the Court is Defendant Montgomery County, Tennessee's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 16, the "Motion"), supported by an accompanying brief (Doc. No. 17). Plaintiffs Jason D. Knight, David Webb, and Joshua Wikholm filed a response (Doc. No. 20), and Defendant replied (Doc. No. 21). For the below-stated reasons, the Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

ALLEGED FACTS1

Plaintiffs engage in "livestreaming" meetings of the Montgomery County Commission ("the Commission") from their individual electronic devices to their individual social media accounts. (Doc. No. 15 at ¶ 23). Livestreaming is the "transmission of live video and audio coverage of an event over the internet using social medial platforms." (Id. at ¶ 7). During a livestream, fellow social media users may comment or "react" to the video feed and those comments and reactions are shared with the other viewers of the livestream as the livestream continues. (Id. at ¶ 8).

Plaintiff Webb is a "disabled veteran whose physical limitations impair his ability to attend Montgomery County Commission meetings in person." (Id. at ¶ 5). Thus, Plaintiff Webb views the livestreams of the Commission meetings from his home. (Id. ). Plaintiff Knight is an elected Montgomery County Commissioner who livestreamed Commission meetings. Plaintiff Knight also hosts live streams (of public meetings and other events) and actively participates, comments, and engages with the audience of his streams. (Id. at ¶ 4). Plaintiff Wikholm is a "disabled veteran whose sole employment is the livestreaming of government meetings." (Id. at ¶ 6).

During a commission meeting on August 12, 2019, a committee member presented Resolution 19-8-3 ("the Resolution") to the Commission for consideration. (Id. at ¶ 24). Section 7 of the Resolution states:

No live broadcast from within the Commission Chambers of its proceedings in whole or in part is allowed. A simultaneous broadcast of the proceedings is available on the internet at "YouTube" and the same is preserved there for an extended period.

(Id. at ¶ 25). The commissioners supportive of the Resolution stated that the Resolution alleviated concerns of safety and disruptions during Commission meetings. (Id. at ¶ 26). The Commission rejected an amendment proposed by Plaintiff Knight that would allow for livestreaming of commission meetings with 48-hours’ notice to the commission, and it passed the Resolution as written by a vote of twenty to one. (Id. at ¶¶ 27, 30).

Plaintiffs contend that the Resolution's restriction on livestreaming the Commission meetings violates their rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 1, Article 19 of the Tennessee Constitution. (Doc. No. 15 at ¶¶ 36-44, 50-55). Plaintiffs also contend that the Resolution violates their Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the laws because they claim that the Resolution treats individuals who wish to livestream differently than individuals who wish to record the meetings for later broadcast. (Id. at ¶¶ 45-49).

470 F.Supp.3d 763

LEGAL STANDARD

For purposes of a motion to dismiss, the Court must take all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true as the Court has done above. Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Id. A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice. Id. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief. Id. at 679, 129 S.Ct. 1937. A legal conclusion, including one couched as a factual allegation, need not be accepted as true on a motion to dismiss, nor are mere recitations of the elements of a cause of action sufficient. Id. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 ; Fritz v. Charter Twp. of Comstock , 592 F.3d 718, 722 (6th Cir. 2010) ; Abriq v. Hall , 295 F. Supp. 3d 874, 877 (M.D. Tenn. 2018). Moreover, factual allegations that are merely consistent with the defendant's liability do not satisfy the claimant's burden, as mere consistency does not establish plausibility of entitlement to relief even if it supports the possibility of relief. Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937.

In determining whether a complaint is sufficient under the standards of Iqbal and its predecessor and complementary case, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007), it may be appropriate to "begin [the] analysis by identifying the allegations in the complaint that are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 680, 129 S.Ct. 1937. Identifying and setting aside such allegations is crucial, because they simply do not count toward the plaintiff's goal of showing plausibility of entitlement to relief. As suggested above, such allegations include "bare assertions," formulaic recitation of the elements, and "conclusory" or "bald" allegations. Id. at 681, 129 S.Ct. 1937. The question is whether the remaining allegations—factual allegations, i.e. , allegations of factual matter – plausibly suggest an entitlement to relief. Id. If not, the pleading fails to meet the standard of Fed. R. Civ. P. 8 and thus must be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Id. at 683, 129 S.Ct. 1937.

ANALYSIS

I. Count One: Violation of the First Amendment Right to Freedom of Expression

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiffs seek to vindicate an alleged right under the First Amendment to livestream the Montgomery County City Council meetings. Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 :

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress ...

"[M]unicipalities and other local government units ... [are] among those persons to whom § 1983 applies." Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. , 436 U.S. 658, 690, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978) Counties are also persons for purposes of § 1983. See Miranda v. Clark Cnty., Nev. , 319 F.3d 465, 469 (9th Cir. 2003) (en banc).

"In order to prevail on a § 1983 claim, [the] [p]laintiffs must demonstrate that [the] [d]efendant[s] deprived them of

470 F.Supp.3d 764

their ‘rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution’ under color of state law." Lindsey v. Detroit Entm't, LLC , 484 F.3d 824, 827 (6th Cir. 2007) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ).2 Therefore, the initial question in considering Plaintiffs’ § 1983 claim is whether they were deprived of a right secured by the U.S. Constitution. However, to be deprived of such right, in light of how Plaintiffs stated their claim, Plaintiffs must have been engaging in activity protected by the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment.

A. Defendant's Position

Defendant argues that the Resolution does not restrict any activity protected by the First Amendment, "because ‘prohibitions on videotaping public meetings do not violate the First Amendment’ and Resolution 19-8-3 does not restrict the ability to post comments on social media websites[.]" (Doc. No. 17 at 3 (citing Carlow v. Mruk , 425 F. Supp. 2d 225, 247-48 (D.R.I. 2006) ). Defendant cites Whiteland Woods, L.P. v. Township of West Whiteland , 193 F.3d 177 (3d Cir. 1999), wherein the Third Circuit explained that the municipality's act of preventing the plaintiff from videotaping a planning commission meeting did not "interfere[ ] with [the plaintiff's] speech or other expressive activity" because the act of recording a government meeting was not expressive activity. ( Id. (citing Whiteland Woods , 193 F.3d at 183 )). Defendant argues that here, Plaintiffs act of livestreaming does not qualify as expressive activity.

Further, Defendant points out that the Resolution does not prohibit, preclude, or restrict speech on a social media website, and "Plaintiffs and any other individuals are permitted to actively comment on...

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4 practice notes
  • Schnekloth v. Deakins, 21-CV-5131
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Western District of Arkansas
    • April 7, 2022
    ...a significant government interest, ” and “ample alternative channels of communication” remain available, Knight v. Montgomery Cnty., 470 F.Supp.3d 760, 768 (M.D. Tenn. 2020) (quoting Youkhanna v. City of Sterling Heights, 332 F.Supp.3d 1058, 1069 (E.D. Mich. 2018), aff'd, 934 F.3d 508 (6th ......
  • Knight v. Montgomery Cnty., 3:19-cv-00710
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Tennessee
    • March 21, 2022
    ...media qualifies as a form of expression [i.e., "speech'] that is protected by the First Amendment." Knight v. Montgomery Cty., Tenn., 470 F.Supp.3d 760, 765 (M.D. Tenn. 2020). Although the Court issued that opinion nearly two years ago, there still has not been a clear answer from the Supre......
  • Oliver v. United States, NO. 3:19-cv-00774
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Middle District of Tennessee
    • July 6, 2020
    ...separated from emotion. Otherwise, there would be no certainty in the law, with judges being able to decide cases based on sympathy for 470 F.Supp.3d 760 the parties or victims, or even worse, their political agendas. Although the law's application in this case may seem rigidly technical, t......
  • Lichtenstein v. Hargett, 3:20-cv-00736
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Tennessee
    • December 7, 2021
    ...Court to decide and therefore, a question that may be decided 7 at the motion-to-dismiss stage. See Knight v. Montgomery Cty., Tenn., 470 F.Supp.3d 760, 768 n.5 (M.D. Tenn. 2020) (Richardson, J.) (“Whether activity qualifies as expressive conduct is a question of law.” (citing Ruff v. Long,......
4 cases
  • Schnekloth v. Deakins, 21-CV-5131
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Western District of Arkansas
    • April 7, 2022
    ...a significant government interest, ” and “ample alternative channels of communication” remain available, Knight v. Montgomery Cnty., 470 F.Supp.3d 760, 768 (M.D. Tenn. 2020) (quoting Youkhanna v. City of Sterling Heights, 332 F.Supp.3d 1058, 1069 (E.D. Mich. 2018), aff'd, 934 F.3d 508 (6th ......
  • Knight v. Montgomery Cnty., 3:19-cv-00710
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Tennessee
    • March 21, 2022
    ...media qualifies as a form of expression [i.e., "speech'] that is protected by the First Amendment." Knight v. Montgomery Cty., Tenn., 470 F.Supp.3d 760, 765 (M.D. Tenn. 2020). Although the Court issued that opinion nearly two years ago, there still has not been a clear answer from the Supre......
  • Oliver v. United States, NO. 3:19-cv-00774
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Middle District of Tennessee
    • July 6, 2020
    ...separated from emotion. Otherwise, there would be no certainty in the law, with judges being able to decide cases based on sympathy for 470 F.Supp.3d 760 the parties or victims, or even worse, their political agendas. Although the law's application in this case may seem rigidly technical, t......
  • Lichtenstein v. Hargett, 3:20-cv-00736
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Tennessee
    • December 7, 2021
    ...Court to decide and therefore, a question that may be decided 7 at the motion-to-dismiss stage. See Knight v. Montgomery Cty., Tenn., 470 F.Supp.3d 760, 768 n.5 (M.D. Tenn. 2020) (Richardson, J.) (“Whether activity qualifies as expressive conduct is a question of law.” (citing Ruff v. Long,......

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