In a split decision, a Maury County judge ruled Tuesday in the civil complaint brought by state Sen. Bill Ketron against his rival, Columbia Councilwoman Debbie Matthews, saying that the case may go to trial, although some of Ketron's complaint was dismissed Tuesday afternoon.
Circuit Court Judge Robert Holloway is presiding over the Maury County Chancery Court case. Normally, there's no jury in a case of equity where the chancellor decides what's fair. A hearing on Friday was on motions to dismiss the case as well as a request to make permanent the restraining order.
No trial date had been set. Without a dismissal, the case may continue after Tuesday's election. On Friday, Holloway said he'd issue a ruling as soon as possible, indicating he'd work over the weekend since he had court Monday.
Ketron brought the complaint after announcing at a political debate that someone in Matthews' campaign was soliciting contributions by sending e-mails from firstname.lastname@example.org.
"No reasonable person opening the e-mail and viewing the contents could have been misled into believing Bill Ketron was endorsing Debbie Matthews," Holloway wrote in his order filed at about 2 p.m. Tuesday.
In extending his restraining order, Holloway said that the sender's address "created a false impression that Bill Ketron was the sender of the e-mail."
Political mailings, advertisements and billboards are to include a statement identifying a responsible party.
The complaint raises more questions than just use of another's name, since Matthews' attorney, Bruce Peden of Columbia, has told Holloway that freedom of political speech is protected.
"All I'm asking the court to do is ... not allow her and her campaign to use my name" in this fashion, Ketron testified in court Friday.
The first issue, however, was addressed earlier this month by Holloway when he issued a temporary restraining order, telling the Matthews campaign to stop sending the e-mails from a free account set up by her campaign manager, Chris Atkins.
Atkins has accepted responsibility for his actions, calling them a stupid lapse of judgment. Matthews testified that the e-mails had a disastrous effect on her campaign, but that she decided docking Atkins' pay one week was sufficient.
Atkins is a disabled veteran. In the Marshall County High School debate, Matthews declined to name her campaign manager. On the stand Friday, she testified that Atkins wouldn't make another point, but she would: He and his wife lost a child recently only eight days after the newborn's birth.
Matthews apologized during a debate at Columbia State Community College last month, promised she didn't know about the e-mail, and would reprimand the responsible person.
By then the solicitation -- and campaign accusation that Ketron was misusing his legislative expense account -- had been sent to 887 e-mail addresses.
"Why in the world would the Debbie Matthews campaign use this" address? Ketron's lawyer, David Bates of Columbia, asked rhetorically. His conclusion is that Ketron's name is well known, "and she's not."
Holloway wrote that he found, "based on the First Amendment complaint that a party who knowingly, intentionally, and deceptively uses someone else's name without their consent to induce an e-mail recipient to open an e-mail in which donations for a political campaign are solicited may be liable in a civil action under" state law.
Bates also used a technical definition of trespass when accusing Matthews of impersonating Ketron and claiming a person's name is their property, so there was an infringement of property rights.