Berry College, Tennessee reach settlement in advertising lawsuit

Berry College, Tennessee reach settlement in advertising lawsuit

October 31st, 2013 by Alex Green in Local Regional News

Berry College in Rome, Ga., and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission have reached a settlement in a legal dispute over the college's right to advertise in Tennessee.

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Berry College representatives said Wednesday that even after a settlement it isn't clear why the Tennessee Higher Education Commission wanted to fine the Rome, Ga., school for advertising on billboards near Nashville.

"We've actually had billboards in Tennessee for several years," said Jeanne Mathews, assistant vice president of public relations and marketing at the school.

Wednesday afternoon, a THEC representative said that because there had been a lawsuit, only a department lawyer could answer questions. No THEC lawyers were available for comment.

THEC rules state that any college seeking to advertise, solicit, recruit, enroll, operate or have a "physical presence" in the state has to fill out authorization papers through THEC, under federal education guidelines.

According to the Berry College news release, the state issued fines because "placing the billboards in Tennessee constituted conducting educational activity" in the state. Berry College does not have a satellite campus in Tennessee or offer distance learning courses.

But after having billboard advertisements in Chattanooga since 2009 and Nashville since 2010, Mathews said the new fines brought against Berry College seemed bizarre. She also said "it was never actually determined how much" the state was going to fine the school.

She said there was "a series of correspondence" between THEC and the school over several weeks about the fines, which led up to legal action brought by Berry.

She said school officials felt the school was being treated unfairly simply because it is not in Tennessee.

Responding to the THEC fines, Berry officials approached the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Georgia about suing THEC over violations of the school's rights under the Commerce Clause and its right to commercial free speech.

The Georgia court dismissed the case and told the school that any lawsuit would have to take place in federal court in Tennessee.

According to the news release, before Berry College refiled the suit in Tennessee the parties entered settlement discussions.

The parties reached a settlement, which includes "a waiver of the THEC rules for advertising and solicitation because Berry meets the same standards required of Tennessee colleges," the school's news release states.

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com.