State AG to defend Rep. Byrd in first amendment lawsuit

Posted at 9:18 PM, Jan 03, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-03 23:36:45-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — An attorney for a Wayne County High School student is critical of the decision to use taxpayer dollars to defend an embattled state representative in a First Amendment lawsuit he is facing.

In a court filing, the state attorney general's office says it will represent Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) in a lawsuit from an unnamed student saying they were forced to wear a political t-shirt with Byrd's name on it during a trip to the state capitol last year, as Byrd was seeking re-election.

"That's a clear-cut violation of the first amendment, that's absolutely unacceptable," said Gerard Stranch, an attorney representing the student in the lawsuit. "And its very disappointing that our taxpayer dollars that are in short supply are being used to do that."

In the lawsuit, Stranch points to a voicemail that was sent to students before the trip.

"You will receive your senior '19 t-shirts from Representative Byrd," the voicemail says. "Once you receive your shirt, please go to the bathroom and change into it, and then safely place the shirt you had on somewhere in the school."

"The instructions were clear," Stranch says in the lawsuit: "Wear the shirt on the field trip. No exceptions."

"The students were told you either wore the shirt or you had to stay at home, that's an absolute endorsement of a candidate and it's inappropriate," Stranch said.

Last year, Byrd was accused of making sexual advances toward Wayne County High School students when he was a basketball coach there 30 years ago.

Byrd has said he does not condone sexually inappropriate behavior, and he said he hopes his behavior over the past three decades bears that out. He said he views those allegations as an attempt to embellish his character.

But Stranch says taxpayer dollars in the Attorney General's office surrounding the current lawsuit should be used better.

Neither the attorney general's office nor Representative Byrd's office immediately responded to NewsChannel 5's request for comment.

Will Caldwell, an attorney representing both the Wayne County School district and the principal of the high school, said his clients deny any wrongdoing.

"They plan on and will defend themselves in this litigation by taking the appropriate legal actions," Caldwell said in an email.

Wayne County schools told NewsChannel 5 last year the t-shirts were not required to be worn.

Byrd was reelected to his state house seat in November.