This week, TechFreedom filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to affirm the dismissal by the trial court in Johnson v. Griffin.
The case arose from a viral video showing Sam Johnson accosting an LGBT teen taking prom pictures in a dress at a hotel restaurant. When the video came to Kathy Griffin’s attention on Twitter, she tweeted about it, identifying Johnson and his employer, and criticizing him—all of which was expression protected by the First Amendment. When Johnson was fired in the midst of growing public outrage, he sued Griffin—in Tennessee. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee dismissed the case, holding that courts in Tennessee could not exercise personal jurisdiction over Griffin, a California resident, just for talking about someone in Tennessee.
“This case may seem like a routine dispute between a few individuals, but the consequences for anyone who expresses themselves online are potentially dire,” said Ari Cohn, Free Speech Counsel at TechFreedom. The plaintiffs argued that jurisdiction was indeed proper in Tennessee because Griffin’s tweets identified Tennessee residents, related to events occurring in Tennessee, and @-mentioned a Tennessee business.
“Thanks to the Internet, we are now able to discuss events, issues, and people from anywhere in the world, with anyone in the world,” Cohn continued. “The Internet has broadened our horizons, but it has also made our world smaller. That’s a good thing. We are more connected than ever, with greater opportunities to shed light on important issues, effectuate collective change, and yes, criticize our fellow citizens when we think they have acted inappropriately. The Johnsons’ argument would reverse these great advancements and make it risky for anyone to speak online about issues outside their home state, for fear of being hauled into court hundreds (or thousands) of miles away.”
“That chilling effect is precisely what anti-SLAPP laws are intended to prevent,” Cohn concluded. “And there is no question that this is a SLAPP. The plaintiff admitted that he considered the suit a success because Griffin hadn’t tweeted about anyone else since, and the suit bears the textbook indicia of SLAPPs. And the Johnsons filed in federal rather than state court, where Tennessee’s own anti-SLAPP law would have applied. The courts should be very cautious about permitting these types of suits—they have the potential to dampen the vibrancy of important online discourse.”
TechFreedom is immensely grateful to Geoffrey Pipoly, Annie Avery, and Jean-Claude André of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP for their pro bono collaboration and assistance with this brief.
TechFreedom also thanks legal intern Joseph Wolf for his invaluable research assistance.
Find our brief and this release on our website, and share it on Twitter, Bluesky, Mastodon, Facebook, and LinkedIn. We can be reached for comment at email@example.com. Read our related work, including:
- Our letter on why the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) still violates the First Amendment (June 12, 2023)
- Our press release on why the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) remains a threat to minors and free speech (May 2, 2023)
- In Internet Speech Cases, SCOTUS Should Stick Up For Reno v. ACLU, Techdirt (Mar. 28, 2023)
- Our letter on two Utah bills aimed to protect minors from online harms, (Feb. 16, 2023)
- Our comments to the FEC on why authority to regulate political speech should remain limited (Jan. 9, 2023)
- Our Fifth Circuit brief critiquing HB 20’s common carriage theory (April 8, 2022)
- Our Eleventh Circuit brief critiquing SB7072’s common carriage theory (Nov. 15, 2021)
- Justice Thomas’s Misguided Concurrence on Platform Regulation, Lawfare (Apr. 14, 2021)
- No, Florida Can’t Regulate Online Speech, Lawfare (Mar. 12, 2021)
- The Wall Street Journal Misreads Section 230 and the First Amendment, Lawfare (Feb. 3, 2021)
TechFreedom is a nonprofit, nonpartisan technology policy think tank. We work to chart a path forward for policymakers towards a bright future where technology enhances freedom, and freedom enhances technology.