House considers penalties for publishers of discriminatory ads

What happened to freedom of the press? As of 2015 this went nowhere.


NASHVILLE, Tenn. - State lawmakers are considering legislation setting guidelines for penalizing newspapers that publish discriminatory advertisements. The Tennessee Human Rights Act prohibits discriminatory advertising, but it sets no guidelines for penalizing offending newspapers.

The legislation stems from a complaint filed with the Tennessee Human Rights Commission against The Review Appeal in Franklin for publishing room rental ads that sought tenants who were childless or Christians.

Ron, regional vice president of Morris Multimedia Inc., which publishes The Review Appeal, said the ads were taken by phone operators who weren't familiar with the law.

"No matter how hard you try, these things are going to slip through," he said. Rep. Mike Williams, the bill's sponsor, said the legislation aims to protect newspapers from costly litigation by giving them a chance to pull the offensive ad before heavy fines are assessed.

"No one is interested in weakening the Human Rights Act," said Williams, D-Franklin. "If there's an honest mistake made, then the newspaper can apologize and go on with business. And if there's honestly a bad actor then they would be fined."

The bill applies to all advertising or notices that exclude people from a public accommodation because of their race, religion, sex or ethnicity.

On first offense, publishers would receive a written reprimand from the Human Rights Commission and be forced to pull the ad. Another offense within two years would mean fines up to $500 or 100 times the revenue collected for the discriminatory ad.

Another offense within five years would mean fines up to $2,500. A subsequent offense within seven years would mean more fines up to $10,000.

The bill passed the Senate in April. It was scheduled to go before the House on Thursday but was delayed until next week. The Tennessee Press Association supports the bill because ultimately it will mean fewer fines for newspapers, lobbyist John Reed said. "No newspaper, most of the time, is going to run an ad that's intentionally discriminatory," he said.

Tracey McCartney, executive director of the Tennessee Fair Housing Council, which filed the complaint against The Review Appeal, said the legislation would have little impact on discrimination complaints. She said people could still seek recourse through the federal courts or Housing and Urban Development office.

Julius Sloss, director of the Human Rights Commission, said the bill makes the penalties equitable "It's not fair to hold a newspaper at the same level of accountability as the person who was intentionally trying to discriminate," he said.

2001 Associated Press Published May 10, 2001