Athens, Tennessee, man will have to tear down building after losing First Amendment appeal

Contributed Photo / This sign Glenn Whiting, of Athens, Tenn., painted on the side of a building on the courthouse square led to a federal free speech lawsuit that was decided against Whiting in a 2022 jury trial. That verdict was upheld Aug. 18, 2023, in a U.S. Appeals Court ruling.

A man who complained that city officials retaliated against him when he painted a downtown Athens, Tennessee, building with a screed against them has lost his appeal to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

Glenn Whiting claimed the city condemned a separate building owned by his father-in-law and mother-in-law and ordered it demolished in retaliation for him voicing his complaints at city meetings and in the painted message.

Now that he has lost his appeal, he will have to tear down the Fisher Street building.

Whiting painted the sign on the side of the downtown building in 2019, criticizing city officials over the handling of a police investigation into a stolen car. Whiting was represented by Knoxville attorney Van Irion.

"This decision resolves this ligation favorably for the city and others," City Attorney Chris Trew in an email. "I assume there will be no further efforts related to this case to reward Mr. Whiting."

(READ MORE: Athens' July Fourth fireworks display snagged by lawsuit; solution in works)

The ruling doesn't discourage Whiting, who compared his experience with federal courts to a former president's.

'Time for change!!!'

Here is what Glenn Whiting painted on a downtown Athens, Tenn., building:

"Witness calls me to tell me about car being stolen out of our building. Called 911 was told wouldn't stop robbery until we prove ownership? Witness confronts thieves they ran for the car and took off. Athens P.D. still refuse to get involved? Car found damaged and radio stolen. APD refusing to talk to witnesses or fingerprint. Met with chief Couch and Seth Sumner who promised to investigate. Well over a year later, key witnesses still not questioned, Mayor Burris refuses to allow me to speak at city council about car. Is this the leadership we want? Time for change!!!"

"It doesn't discourage me at all because I knew I stood up for right, and anybody who thinks these courts are not corrupt only needs to look at what's happening to Donald Trump," Whiting said Tuesday in a phone interview. "Here's where it stands: The building will have to be torn down."

There is no chance the case would be heard in the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.

"Obviously, the court gets to rule the way they do, and we have to live with it, and I will," he said. "All I know is I have to stand up and do what's right, and I've done that every step of the way, and I don't regret my decision."

When Whiting's first case went to trial in January 2022 on the same allegations, the jury couldn't reach a verdict after three days of deliberation and a mistrial was declared.

The retrial was held in April 2022, with jurors finding in favor of the city.

At the retrial, the city's attorney, Dan Pilkington, told jurors numerous photos entered into evidence of the condemned building showed conditions nearby residents had complained about to the city regarding the family's property and argued Whiting was not treated differently than anyone else.

The complaints were that the building was a dilapidated and dangerous fire hazard, and that was the reason for the condemnation hearing, the notice and the demolition order, not retaliation, Pilkington said in 2022.




Whiting's father-in-law didn't show up at the condemnation hearing, Pilkington said, and no one from the family approached city officials about a remedy or to contest the condemnation notice.

"The building met all the standards for condemnation," Pilkington told jurors in 2022.

The downtown building the sign was painted on was a different structure than the one ordered to be demolished. It stands across the street from the McMinn County Courthouse facing Jackson Street, a main northbound thoroughfare in downtown Athens. Whiting later painted over the sign.

Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569.

  photo  Staff Photo by Ben Benton / Athens, Tenn., resident Glenn Whiting.