New trial begins in First Amendment lawsuit against city of Athens, officials say

A federal civil lawsuit in a case against the city of Athens, Tennessee, its attorney and city manager, which ended in a mistrial in January, resumed Monday in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.

Athens resident Glenn Whiting filed a lawsuit against the city, City Attorney Chris Trew and City Manager C. Seth Sumner alleging First Amendment violations by the defendants over a sign Whiting painted on the side of a downtown building in 2019 criticizing the police department and the city for a stolen car investigation. Whiting claims city officials condemned a building owned by her stepfather and stepmother and tore it down in retaliation for voicing her complaints at town meetings and in the painted message, court documents show. filed October 15.

Athens officials have denied the allegations.

(READ MORE: Former Athens, Tennessee police chief files complaint after being fired)

A mistrial in the case was declared in January when jurors could not reach a consensus after deliberating for three days during the case’s first trial. Monday’s retrial began before a jury of five women and three men, including two alternates.

Whiting’s solicitor, Van Irion, told jurors in his opening statement on Monday that the commercial building owned by the Whiting family on Pope Street was condemned and demolished in retaliation for Whiting’s criticism of law enforcement officials. city, while another building owned by an unnamed member of the city council – a commercial building on Fisher Street in Athens – was in a similar condition but did not receive the same treatment from city officials, said Irion said.

Although Whiting’s jumpsuit does not contain the painted message at issue, Whiting provided a photo of it in January.

(READ MORE: Athens, Tennessee, city manager suspended for two weeks without pay)

It read: “Witness calls me to tell me about the theft of a car from our building. Called 911, was told he won’t stop the theft until we prove ownership? Witness confronts thieves they ran for car and left Athens PD still refuses to Car was found damaged and radio stolen ODA refuses to speak to witnesses or fingerprints Met with chief Couch and Seth Sumner who promised to investigate Well over a year later, key witnesses still have not been interviewed, Mayor Burris refuses to allow me to speak to the city council about the car. the leadership we want? It’s time to change!!!”

The building the sign was painted on — a different structure than the one that was torn down — stands across from the McMinn County Courthouse, facing Jackson Street, a major northbound thoroughfare in downtown Washington. Athens. At some point, the sign was repainted by the city, Whiting claimed.

In district court on Monday, Irion told jurors that Whiting took over management of the Pope Street building around the same time the dispute over the stolen car arose. Since assuming the role of city manager about five years ago, Sumner has created a climate of fear among city workers to allow him to control the actions of the city, even to the point of condemning and condemning. order the building on Pope Street to be demolished, Irion said.

Dan Pilkington, a lawyer representing the city, Sumner and Trew, said the real question before the jury was whether the city’s condemnation of the Pope Street building was reasonable given its condition and the court orders. city. Pilkington told jurors the Pope Street building was in far worse condition than that described by Whiting.

Residents near the Pope Street building had filed complaints with the city, Pilkington told jurors, and the code enforcement officer issuing opinions on his condition did not know Whiting. The owner of the property, Whiting’s father-in-law Don Ammerman, was told about the situation but did not appear at a city hearing about it, Pilkington said.

The owner’s failure to show up for the hearing forced the city’s hand, and city officials cannot be held responsible for any owner’s inaction, Pilkington told jurors.

The city had to condemn the building because it was unsafe, not in retaliation, he said. Whiting’s freedom of speech criticizing the city doesn’t mean the city can’t take action against unfit buildings, Pilkington said.

Whiting’s lawsuit seeks damages and an injunction, but no monetary amount is specified in the court documents. He is also asking that the defendants reimburse Whiting for attorneys’ fees.

Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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