In late July, emails began appearing in some Arkansas lawmakers’ in-boxes from an out-of-state man who identified himself as Chris Severe.
He offered a half-dozen pieces of legislation, one of them on human trafficking. He made a simple request.
“We will let you pick who gets to sponsor what. Once you decide, we will reach out [to] them and brief them,” read one message, sent using a pseudonym.
The offer ended with another promise: “We will be there to testify on these bills.”
The overtures eventually resulted in two bills being filed for this year’s legislative session, even though readily accessible news reports and court records identify the man as a Tennessee lawyer with an inactive law license and a history of arrests and aliases.
The two pieces of legislation included one bill aimed at stopping “social media censorship” and another that would mandate that devices capable of accessing the Internet have software to block material defined as obscene under Arkansas law. Under the proposal, those devices could be unblocked if users paid a $20 fee.
Both bills have raised constitutional concerns from attorneys while earning criticism from traditional advocacy groups.
The man told lawmakers that he was with a group called “Special Forces of Liberty.” The group has a one-page website with no explanation of what it does, but it accepts donations for its “causes.” Its Facebook page gives a New York address and a Tennessee phone number. The Internal Revenue Service has no records for such a group in its database of tax-exempt organizations.
“The social media companies are going to shut this down,” said Rita Sklar, the executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, adding that her group is not taking a stance on either bill. “It’s completely undo-able. It would cost the state a fortune.”
Both bills were filed by state Rep. Johnny Rye, R-Trumann, who said in a recent interview that he was unaware that the man who contacted him about the bills — whose name he could only recall as “Chris” — went by several other names.
Speaking with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the man who had contacted lawmakers under the name “Chris Severe” acknowledged that he was in fact the person behind anti-gay marriage lawsuits in Utah and that his law license had been placed on inactive status in Tennessee because of disability. He also told the newspaper that his name was spelled Christopher Seviere. (This article is referring to the man as Sevier, the spelling that most often appears in court and other official records.)
In Tennessee, the man’s name appears as Mark Christopher Sevier in a series of arrest reports related to charges of stalking, as well as in records from the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Responsibility, which notes that Sevier’s law license is inactive because of disability.
The name Chris Sevier appears on federal court papers filed in Utah, where Sevier once protested gay marriage by attempting to legally marry his computer, which he claimed was filled with pornography. Meanwhile, a website regarding the anti-obscenity legislation filed by Rye lists the name of a “Lt. Chris Silver Esq.” as a point of contact.
Sevier threatened the Democrat-Gazette with a libel lawsuit during a recent telephone interview. Another man who worked with Sevier in contacting lawmakers, John Gunter Jr., made similar legal threats, as well as the promise to “burn your paper to the ground.”
‘GOING TO CHANGE THINGS’
Rye, who was re-elected to a second two-year term in November, said in a recent interview that Sevier first contacted him by phone about six months ago to pitch a plan to combat human trafficking by blocking access to pornography. Rye described human trafficking as a problem in his native Poinsett County. Interstate 555 runs through Poinsett County to Memphis.
According to statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there were 29 reported cases of human trafficking in Arkansas in 2018. A single case of human trafficking in Trumann was recorded within Rye’s district over the past five years, according to the Arkansas Crime Information Center.
Recalling their initial conversations, Rye said Sevier told him that similar legislation had been filed in 14 other states and was on track to pass.
“He made me feel like this was something that was going to change things around the country,” Rye said, before adding that he had never met Sevier in person and never looked into the man’s background.
A website promoting the proposed law claims that versions of the law have been filed in 29 states, though it has not passed in any of them. Emails sent to Arkansas lawmakers included a link to the website, humantraffickingpreventionact.com. The website has photos of lawmakers from various states, including 11 from Arkansas. Some of those Arkansans who were contacted were unaware that their photos were on the website.
In interviews with the Democrat-Gazette, Arkansas lawmakers who were contacted by Sevier and Gunter described being initially drawn to the two men’s proposals, based on the lawmakers’ own policy interests.
“They contacted me about something that I have genuine concerns about,” said Rep. Karilyn Brown, R-Sherwood, who sponsored a successful resolution in the 2017 session that declared the proliferation of Internet pornography a public health crisis.
According to emails provided by Brown, Sevier — who spelled his name Severe in their conversations — asked Brown to sponsor a bill to create an “Admission Act” that would charge an extra $2 entrance fee to strip clubs, with the funds being deposited into the state’s existing Safe Harbor Fund for Sexually Exploited Children. Sevier described it as a companion bill to the proposed Human Traff icking and Child Exploitation Prevention Act sponsored by Rye.
Brown said she agreed to send drafts of the legislation to the state Bureau of Legislative Research, which works for the Legislature.
But Brown became “annoyed” with Sevier and Gunter after finding out that they had used her picture and name on their website. The site touted the success of her 2017 anti-pornography resolution, which Brown said the men were not involved with.
Later, she said, Sevier began to contact the Bureau of Legislative Research staff directly regarding legislation, and on Dec. 26 she sent an email to Sevier telling him to stop, according to a copy she provided to a reporter. Brown has not filed legislation provided by the men.
“I just felt somewhat fire-hosed,” she said. “A little voice inside of me said, ‘This is trouble.’”
Marty Garrity, who is the director of the Bureau of Legislative Research, said staffers sometimes consult with outside groups on legislation, but are instructed not to file or make changes to draft bills without authorization from the bills’ sponsor. She declined to comment on any specific conversations between staffers, lawmakers and outside groups or people.
Rep. Brandt Smith , R-Jonesboro, who was also contacted by Sevier last year, said he similarly became uncomfortable with their conversations after he said Sevier ignored his request for time to review proposed legislation before having it sent to other lawmakers for support.
“They started pinging everyone,” Smith said. “It didn’t bother me one bit to say, ‘I’m done.’”
According to emails provided by Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, Gunter and Sevier first had contacts with lawmakers in February 2017, during that year’s regular legislative session. Leding says he never followed up on the emails he received.
It does not appear that lawmakers filed any legislation on behalf of Gunter and Sevier during the 2017 session, based on legislative records.
SPECIAL FORCES OF LIBERTY
About an hour after Rye was contacted by a reporter in the last week of December regarding his bills, a man who identified himself as Sevier — he said it was spelled Seviere — called the reporter and threatened to sue the newspaper for libel in federal court in Louisiana if anything bad was written about Rye or other lawmakers who carry his bills.
The man said he was licensed to practice law in four states, though he declined to say which ones. While Sevier declined to give his age to a reporter, court records indicate that he is 41.
“I’m a federal litigator,” Sevier said. “I file a s***-ton of lawsuits.”
Asked about his several arrests for aggravated stalking in Tennessee, which date back to 2013, Sevier called the charges “completely fabricated.”
According to local news reports, Sevier was accused of stalking the country music singer John Rich, as well as a 17-year-old girl who worked at a Ben and Jerry’s in Nashville. Sevier was later found guilty of a single lesser charge of making “harassment threats,” and was sentenced to six months’ probation, along with the stipulation that he stay out of Tennessee, according to court records.
Last spring, legislation similar to Rye’s anti-obscenity bill was filed in Rhode Island under the name of the “Elizabeth Smart Law.” Smart, whose abduction as a teenager in Utah in 2002 attracted national headlines, later denied any association with the proposal, The Associated Press reported, and lawmakers in Providence eventually pulled the bill.
In their communications with lawmakers, both Sevier and Gunter claimed membership in a group called Special Forces of Liberty. Gunter also said he was part of the nonprofit Clean Services Foundation.
Speaking to the Democrat-Gazette, Gunter said he has worked with Sevier for several years in the “anti-pornography” movement. Asked about Sevier’s legal troubles, Gunter immediately became hostile, saying, “You’ve got to get a life,” before threatening to “burn” the paper.
Sevier also made disparaging remarks in his conversation with the Democrat-Gazette, and called a reporter “evil.”
Regarding his efforts to marry his laptop in Utah, in which he claimed through court records that he had become “conditioned to prefer sex” with his computer, Sevier said that he was making a purposefully “dumb argument” as part of a critique of gay marriage.
Sevier said he was not addicted to pornography and that his previous lawsuits should not reflect upon the legislation he was pushing in Arkansas.
“Who is presenting the idea is not as important as what the idea is,” Sevier said.
HOUSE BILLS 1028, 1032
Rye said that after being contacted by Sevier in 2018, he reached out to the Poinsett County sheriff, Kevin Molder, who he said encouraged him to do something about human trafficking.
But when reached by phone recently, Molder denied having discussed any legislation with Rye. He said the legislator had not contacted him until Dec. 26, the same day the Democrat-Gazette initially contacted Rye with questions about the bills.
Rye filed House Bill 1032, the Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Prevention Act, on Dec. 12, according to legislative records. He filed House Bill 1028, the Stop Social Media Censorship Act, on Dec. 6, and altogether he has filed a dozen pieces of legislation ahead of the legislative session, which begins this month.
“We’re just trying to help,” Rye said in an interview. Asked what his legislation would do to stem human trafficking, Rye said it would create a “registration of folks that look at pornography.”
“We’re having a problem with a lot of our kids on the Internet,” Rye said, adding that young people were being lured into sex trafficking online.
The text of HB1032 does not mention a “registration” of people who view pornography. However, it would mandate that “blocking software” be installed on devices capable of accessing the Internet, preventing the user from accessing “obscene material” online.
In order to bypass the Internet blocks, a person purchasing electronics would have to pay a $20 fee into the state’s Safe Harbor Fund for Sexually Exploited Children. Also, the attorney general would be authorized to file civil suits against companies that fail to properly maintain blocking software on their products, according to HB1032.
Robert Steinbuch, a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law, said Rye’s legislation would create an infringement on free-speech rights by essentially creating a tax to access certain content on the Internet.
“He is pursuing a laudable goal,” Steinbuch said, but “the method by which he is seeking to pursue that would ultimately be found unconstitutional.”
Legislation similar to HB1032 has also failed to get the endorsement of advocacy groups such as the The National Center on Sexual Exploitation. A statement on the group’s website cites First Amendment concerns and a “difficult relationship with Mr. Sevier” as its reasons for not supporting the law.
Rye’s second bill filed at Sevier’s request, HB1028, would make social media companies liable to civil damages if they remove posts that fall under “religious or political” speech. The bill also raises concerns under the First Amendment, said John Tull, a Little Rock attorney who has worked on free-speech cases.
“I don’t think it would pass muster on numerous constitutional grounds,” said Tull. “The social media companies themselves have a right to free speech.”
Asked about the need for such legislation, Rye said that he was generally aware of “people having problems with people taking things down” on websites such as Facebook and Twitter, though he said he had not heard about any such complaints from his constituents until after he filed the bill. He said his constituents have been pleased with the legislation.
The legislation crafted by Sevier and Gunter represents just a small portion of the 157 bills pre-filed ahead of the session, which starts Jan. 14. The 2017 session saw thousands of bills filed over the course of three months.
In the phone call with the reporter, Sevier claimed that newspapers, including the Democrat-Gazette, were attempting to derail his legislation by writing negative stories about him. Regardless of the outcome of HB1032 and HB1028 in the state, he said he had already set his sights on passing the legislation in larger states, mentioning New Jersey.
“By the way, nobody gives a s*** about Arkansas,” he said.