'Zombie' protesters' lawsuit against utility won't die

Mar 5 2013 - 12:43pm

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It's been more than a year since it was filed, no hearings have taken place, but the "zombie" lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority is not dead.

In fact, the case is shuffling toward its first hearing. On March 12, U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell will hear a TVA motion to dismiss the case that six protesters filed against TVA for ejecting them from an authority board meeting for wearing zombie costumes.

Chris Irwin, Bonnie Swinford, Matt Jones, Ricki Draper, Mark Homer and Margaret Rogers filed a lawsuit against TVA on Jan. 23, 2012, claiming the federal utility violated their first amendment rights when they showed up in costume at an August, 2011 TVA board meeting to speak against TVA plans to complete the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in northern Alabama.

The protesters termed Bellefonte, which had been mothballed in 1988, a "corpse of a power plant," better left uncompleted. At the board meeting, Irwin wore a suit and had "zombie' makeup on his face, Draper dressed as Santa Claus, Homer dressed as Benjamin Franklin and Rogers as a pirate. The others were not in costume.

According to the lawsuit, Jones spoke to the board, making a joke about zombies outside and then made a low moaning noise. He was immediately told to leave. The lawsuit says Swinford then changed her planned speech because she did not know if Jones had been arrested. This amounted to a suppression of her free speech rights, the plaintiffs claim.

"Plaintiff Swinford was frightened and intimidated by seeing Plaintiff Jones being directed out of The Meeting," the lawsuit reads.

TVA has filed to dismiss the lawsuit. According to TVA, wearing a costume is not protected expression under the First Amendment. Even if it were, TVA's "no-costume" policy supports the need to ensure security at a government meeting, according to the motion.

The lawsuit seeks $50,000 in damages for each plaintiff, a permanent injunction against TVA enforcing its costume policy and an order setting aside all actions TVA took at the board meeting.

Citing legal restrictions, neither side had much to say Tuesday about the impending hearing. TVA does not comment on pending litigation, said spokesman Scott Brooks.

"We did what we did for security reasons," he said.

Irwin, who is a lawyer, and referred questions to his attorney.

"This is unusual for me," he said. "I'm not used to being in this situation. But I am an attorney myself; I've tried cases in federal court and I know the local rules restrict what you can say."

Distributed by the Scripps Howard News Service



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