Despite long odds of prevailing in a lawsuit against Rutherford County to gain the right to publish public notices, Pete Doughtie remains adamant that The Rutherford Reader is a newspaper of general circulation.
“I have gone to various people within the Rutherford County government to try to convince them that we meet the criteria to be a newspaper of general circulation, but no one will even consider The Reader for public notices,” said Doughtie, the publisher of The Reader.
“I just want to be given the opportunity to be included in the mix,” he added. “All of this boils down to the fact that Rutherford County should allow my newspaper to compete too.”
When asked whether his coverage of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro and Muslim community has negatively impacted his business, Doughtie also remained defiant and rebuked claims that the Rutherford Reader is a form of “hate speech,” as some critics have called it.
“(Rutherford County officials) might not like me, and that is fine,” Doughtie said, “but they are using the excuse that I have never had the backing of the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office to treat me differently than the other newspapers. ... I am not going to lay off issues regarding the mosque, nor Muslims. I am speaking the truth.”
The Tennessee attorney general has issued two opinions stating The Reader is not a newspaper of general circulation, and therefore, it is not qualified to publish public and legal notices under current state law.
The 72-year-old former advertising salesman said he believes, however, the practice of having the Tennessee attorney general determine what qualifies as a newspaper of general circulation is outdated and unnecessary.
“This sort of arrangement was made decades ago, and times are different,” said Doughtie, who moved to Murfreesboro in 1999. “Nothing has changed to adapt to the times.”
Doughtie said he filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Middle Tennessee because the Tennessee attorney general announced in December 2009 the department would no longer act as an authority on the matter, only months after denying his request for a second time.
Since then, Doughtie said he has been unable to obtain a third opinion that very well could be issued in his favor.
“The entire system is messed up,” he said. “What is it going to take to correct it? Perhaps, this lawsuit will bring attention to a very serious issue.”
According to the lawsuit filed in March, Doughtie insists his constitutional rights of due process and equal protection under the law have been violated because Rutherford County public notices are published in The Murfreesboro Post and The Daily News Journal, while The Reader has been denied the chance to do so.
In addition to trying to be added to the approved publication list, Doughtie is also seeking an unspecified amount of damages from Rutherford County, which he contends should pay all of the court costs and attorney fees if he wins the case.
On Monday, Doughtie suffered his first legal setback in the ongoing court battle when a federal judge denied an injunction request to force Rutherford County to include The Reader on its list of newspapers that are authorized to publish public notices.
In a memorandum that seems to be at an attempt to discourage future proceedings, Judge Todd J. Campbell ruled Doughtie has little chance of winning a lawsuit over his right to publish public notices, as well as other legal announcements.
“The court finds that (Doughtie) has failed to show the need for this extraordinary relief,” Campbell said, adding that he believes “there is significant doubt” as to whether Doughtie will ultimately prevail in the lawsuit.
Noting Doughtie bears the burden of proving his constitutional rights have been violated, Campbell said it would be unfair to make Rutherford County officials deviate away from the status quo. As such, the injunction could have caused unintended consequences in the future.
“If the court were to grant this preliminary injunction request … and then later dissolve the injunction and enter a judgment in favor of (Rutherford County), any such notices in (The Reader) could be defective, causing possible havoc within the state court systems,” he said.
Therefore, Campbell said, he should not intervene and issue an injunction against Rutherford County before the lawsuit even goes to trial in federal court.
In response to the allegations, Rutherford County attorneys have countered The Reader is not a legitimate newspaper.
To qualify as a newspaper of general circulation under Tennessee law, a publication must be published at least one a week, be distributed throughout the county, and include news of general interest pertaining to the community.
Even though it meets the first two criteria, Rutherford County officials maintain that because the Tennessee attorney general has determined The Reader does not meet the latter requirement on more than one occasion, they have done nothing wrong.
“(Doughtie) appears to rely on his assertion that he believes (The Reader) satisfies certain criteria to be considered a newspaper of general circulation under Tennessee law,” said attorney Jim Cope, one of the attorneys who represents Rutherford County.
“However, there are two Tennessee attorney general opinions, which clearly state The Reader is not a newspaper of general circulation and is not qualified to publish legal notices,” Cope said in court documents filed in June.
Throughout much of the scathing response that calls for dismissing the case altogether, Cope points out the attorney general has never issued an opinion stating The Post and DNJ are ineligible to publish legal notices – a fact that distinguishes both newspapers from The Reader.
“Therefore,” Cope said, “a rational basis exists for treating The Reader differently.”