Attorney David LaRoche, who represents The Murfreesboro Post, presents closing arguments April 26, 2012, in a trial over construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro at the Rutherford County Judicial Building in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (TMP File Photo)
The Murfreesboro Post filed an appeal Tuesday in the Tennessee Court of Appeals contending a Rutherford County judge unfairly targeted the publication and later erred by declining to rule on its legal status, as part of the on-going litigation over construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.
In the appeal, attorney David LaRoche alleges Chancellor Robert Corlew III unnecessarily created controversy when none existed prior to the Islamic Center lawsuit, yet he declined to rule on its status as a newspaper of general circulation.
As a result of those doubts being raised, he is arguing The Post has suffered a decline in advertising revenue for many types of legal notices even though it meets the definition of a newspaper of general circulation under Tennessee law.
“Other than the public notice in this case, there has never been a challenge to the adequacy of any other legal notice in The Post,” LaRoche said in the appeal, which is scheduled to be heard in March.
Furthermore, he said, the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office has never withdrawn its opinion classifying The Post has a newspaper of general circulation.
LaRoche also points out that the “Rutherford Reader has been denied an attorney general opinion” recognizing it as a newspaper of general circulation, while The Daily News Journal “has no attorney general opinion at all.”
And while Corlew quite notably held in his decision that “the evidence shows The Post has a larger Sunday circulation than any other print media in the county,” LaRoche said, the questions he raised about whether subscription rates or circulation data should be a factor were not based on any current law.
“It is important to note,” LaRoche said, “that none of the definitions offered by the Tennessee Supreme Court make any reference or requirement that a publication needs to be freely distributed, or sold for a certain price, in determining whether it meets the definition of a newspaper of general circulation for anything other than election laws.”
State law uses “no certain numbers of circulation, or how these numbers compare with the population of the distribution area, as criteria” to define a newspaper of general circulation, he added.
“The Post meets the statutory requirements to consider itself a newspaper of general circulation in Rutherford County for all purposes other than election notices,” LaRoche said, adding it was not until Islamic Center opponents filed a lawsuit did Corlew ever question whether The Post was qualified to publish legal notices.
Launched in 2006 and currently run by Ron Fryar, former president of the Tennessee Press Association, The Post is a free newspaper that is published twice weekly and distributed to racks throughout Rutherford County. The locally owned publication also offers home delivery subscriptions to readers who live in the Middle Tennessee area.
The appeal filed by The Post is the latest development in the Islamic Center controversy – a lawsuit that thrust Rutherford County into the national spotlight and resulted in the U.S. Department of Justice intervening to allow the mosque to open in September 2012.
In the spring of last year, Corlew ruled the Rutherford County Planning Commission failed to provide adequate public notice prior to approving construction of the Islamic Center during a May 24, 2010, regularly scheduled meeting.
“The plaintiffs argue persuasively that the issue before us was in fact a matter of great importance and a matter of tremendous public interest,” Corlew said, as part of his decision.
Given the “totality of the circumstances,” the Planning Commission should have utilized multiple media outlets, which is not required under current law, to inform residents about the Islamic Center proposal, Corlew said.
The move comes only a few weeks after Rutherford County attorneys also filed an appeal to the ruling, citing concerns about whether requiring the Planning Commission to treat the Islamic Center differently than other religious organizations violates the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions.
For nearly three years, opponents of the Islamic Center have fought to stop construction of the new mosque, located on Veals Road off Bradyville Pike in Murfreesboro.
In addition to touting the issue as a terrorism concern, Islamic Center opponents have based much of their argument on the assertion that a public notice published May 2, 2010, in The Post was insufficient because, at that time, it was not a newspaper of general circulation.