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State Lawyer Fired for Anti-Islam Tweets Files Speech Suit (1)

April 6, 2021, 4:04 PM; Updated: April 6, 2021, 6:52 PM

An attorney alleges the Tennessee Supreme Court’s board of professional responsibility unlawfully fired him for posting Tweets that an opposing party said displayed anti-Muslim bias, arguing his social media posts were constitutionally protected political speech similar to that of former president Donald Trump.

The board of professional responsibility regulates licensed Tennessee attorneys. Jerry Morgan handled appeals to the state supreme court regarding attorney discipline, according to his complaint filed Monday at the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.

Attorney Brian Manookian, who was undergoing disciplinary proceedings, filed a motion to disqualify Morgan, claiming he was an anti-Muslim bigot. Manookian cited multiple Tweets Morgan had posted that, among other things, praised then-candidate Trump for “talking about the #1 issue of our time—stopping Muslims” and disparaged Muslims and Democrats.

Manookian claimed Morgan had an anti-Islam bias that could prejudice him, because his wife was Muslim and his children were being raised in a Muslim household.

Morgan says his posts were “indisputably political in nature,” concerning matters that were controversial but part of the national debate. “Many were views publicly expressed by Trump” and agreed to by the Tennessee voters who “overwhelmingly” voted for him in 2016, Morgan says. There were no accusations against him of biased conduct in the Manookian case or any other, Morgan claims.

Morgan was fired in December. He sued the board and chief disciplinary counsel Sandra Garrett, alleging he was unconstitutionally punished for Tweets that were made in his private capacity and were about matters of public importance.

Cause of Action: First Amendment.

Relief Requested: Damages, injunctive relief.

Response: A spokesperson for the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts declined Tuesday to comment on pending litigation.

Attorneys: Blackburn Firm PLLC represents Morgan.

The case is Morgan v. Bd. of Prof’l Resp. of Sup. Ct. of Tenn., M.D. Tenn., No. 3:21-cv-00274, complaint filed 4/5/21.

(Updated ninth paragraph with response from Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts)

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Flood in Washington at bflood@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Nicholas Datlowe at ndatlowe@bloomberglaw.com

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