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VOL. 132 | NO. 9 | Thursday, January 12, 2017

Justin Timberlake-Inspired Selfie Bill in Play in Tennessee Legislature

By Sam Stockard

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(AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht)

Pop star Justin Timberlake won’t have to worry about getting into trouble for taking selfies at the voting booth if legislation by a Memphis lawmaker passes.

Democratic state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a 10-year veteran of the Legislature, was set to file a bill Tuesday, Jan. 10, removing the prohibition on photos at Tennessee voting precincts.

“The ban on selfies makes no sense,” Hardaway said. “It causes our already overworked and underpaid election workers, those at the polls, to have to pay attention to enforcing the law that, in essence, violates the constitutional rights of our young folks who are known to live, to communicate by digital means.”

Unknowingly, Timberlake might have violated state law when he took a selfie in a Germantown voting booth earlier this year where, as a periodic resident, he is registered to vote, according to reports.

The singer/actor took the photo and posted a message stating, “Hey! You! Yeah, YOU! I just flew from LA to Memphis to #rockthevote !!! No excuses, my good people! There could be early voting in your town, too. If not, November 8th! Choose to have a voice! If you don’t, then we can’t HEAR YOU! Get out and VOTE! #exerciseyourrighttovote”

Under the law that took effect in January 2016, Tennesseans are allowed to use cell phones inside polling places to help them make election decisions. But they are prohibited “from using the device for telephone conversations, recording, or taking photographs or videos while inside the polling place.” Violations are a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $50 fine.

The Senate version was sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican, and passed on the consent calendar for non-controversial items there, according to reports. It saw Democratic opposition on the House floor before passing on a party-line vote there in 2015.

After primary voting last August, the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office initially said it was looking into Timberlake’s situation to determine whether charges should be filed, but later said it wasn’t pursuing the matter.

Hardaway, after announcing he would try to repeal the law, requested an attorney general’s opinion on the matter. But AG Herbert Slatery opined the law doesn’t violate state or federal constitutions and stated, “The interior of a polling place is a nonpublic forum” and the government can regulate speech there as long as the rule is “reasonable.”

“Because a polling place is not a public forum, any regulation on speech within that forum will be constitutional as long as it reasonably relates to a legitimate government interest,” the opinion states.

The state law provides “content-neutral regulations that are reasonable” for “(1) ensuring privacy of the ballot, speed and efficiency of the voting process, and integrity of the election, (2) preventing disruption and distraction for voters, voter intimidation, and interference and fraud in the balloting process,” Slatery’s opinion states.

Hardaway, though, says the idea that taking selfies at the ballot box risks infringing on another person’s voting rights is “a false argument.”

“If you’re standing at your voting booth, then you shouldn’t be able to see anybody else’s voting booth to where you can read their ballot anyway,” Hardaway said. “So the logistics support what I’m doing.”

Other reasons for the law don’t hold up, either, he said, noting it puts pressure on poll workers to enforce state law and serves mainly to violate the rights of voters, especially millennials who are interested in recording and posting daily activities.

“Our young folks communicate like that. They will use the selfies,” Hardaway said. “They will use that as a means for motivating and encouraging others to participate in the election process and that’s a business we need to be in. We need to be encouraging more of our citizens to participate in the elections process instead of trying to put roadblocks in their way, especially our young folks.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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