TN civil rights intimidation law challenged in gorilla mask protest at ETSU

The validity of Tennessee’s law prohibiting civil rights intimidation will be challenged by the attorney for a former East Tennessee State University student charged under the statute after appearing at a Black Lives Matter protest wearing a gorilla mask and carrying a string of bananas, reports the Johnson City Press.

Patrick Denton is representing Tristan Rettke, 19, who was also indicted on charges of disorderly conduct. A preliminary hearing on the charges was held Tuesday.

“This was a counter protest in a free-speech zone on campus,” Denton said after the hearing. “There’s no way that his free speech should have been criminalized. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to taint the jury pool.”

Rettke’s charges stem from a Sept. 28, 2016, incident when he showed up at a Black Lives Matter demonstration dressed in overalls and a gorilla mask while carrying bananas with string tied around them in a burlap bag with the Confederate flag on it.

The demonstration was held at Borchuck Plaza, outside Sherrod Library on the Johnson City campus, previously designated a free-speech zone. It’s supposed to be a location where students can freely express themselves without being harassed or intimidated. But several students participating in the demonstration said that’s exactly how they felt when the gorilla mask-clad man showed up — harassed and intimidated.

Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice told prosecutors they should give notice to the state attorney general’s office about Denton’s promised motion. Because the motion will challenge the constitutionality of state law, the attorney general’s office will handle it on behalf of the legislature.

Ryan’s Knoxville country club fundraiser draws protesters

U.S.  House Speaker Paul Ryan had private visits in Knoxville and Nashville Thursday with Tennessee Republican congressmen, reports the News Sentinel. Outside of Knoxville’s Cherokee County Club, site of a fundraiser, more than 100 protesters showed up despite the rain.

“He’s in there charging $10,000 for a photo op, and then we’re out here trying to make sure that we have health care next year,” said a soaked Gloria Johnson, a former Democratic state representative and the organizer of the protest, who joked that she left her raincoat at home.

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Sessions gives tough-on-crime speech in Memphis; draws protesters

Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of about 100 law enforcement officials in Memphis, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed opioid abuse, urged protection of the country’s southern border and vowed to dismantle transnational cartels, drug trafficking and gangs, reports the Commercial Appeal.

He cited a 43 percent increase in homicides last year in Memphis as showing the need for tougher action. About 100 protesters were outside.

“If you are a gang member, know this: You think you are targeting us. Well, we are targeting you,” he said. “We will find you. We will devastate your networks. We will starve your revenue sources, deplete your ranks and seize your profits. We will not concede a single block or single street corner to illegal gangs.”

Sessions said 230 more Assistant United States attorneys will be hired nationwide, and he reiterated that he has empowered federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense in each case.”

To reduce opioid abuse, deaths and crime, he said prevention programs “in the long run are the most important and effective thing we can do.”

About 100 protesters also showed up, according to a sidebar story. They marched from the Memphis City Hall to the federal courthouse where Sessions was speaking chanting slogans including “No justice, no peace!” and “No racist police!” and “Hey, ho, Jeff Sessions has got to go!”

42 legislators ask delay in outsourcing; contract signing ahead of schedule

A week or so after 42 state legislators called for a delay in finalizing higher education outsourcing plans, Jones Lang LaSalle officials signed the company’s contract with the state ahead of schedule.

The Times-Free Press initially reported on the legislators’ letter to Gov. Bill Haslam’s outsourcing czar, Terry Cowles. It asks “that the outsourcing process wait until the General Assembly is able to study and understand the effects on our public services, economy, and state workers.”

The Nashville Post reported Tuesday in an overview of recent outsourcing developments that JLL officials actually affixed their signatures to the contract document on Friday, a week earlier than planned.

The contract is under review by the comptroller’s office before the state can officially sign off on it, but that review could be complete by the end of the day Friday, according to comptroller spokesperson John Dunn. The state’s bond counsel is also reviewing the contract to insure compliance. According to Dunn, that office has been asked to expedite its review but no firm time frame for its completion exists.

But criticism is pouring in from legislators and students, as letters and complaints fly to and fro, and University of Tennessee at Knoxville students held a large protest on Monday.

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Opposition develops to demolishing Henry Horton State Park Inn

Marshall County residents are rallying to preserve the inn at Henry Horton State Park, which is scheduled to be demolished under the governor’s budget proposal for the coming year and two legislators representing the county are trying to help, reports the Marshall County Tribune.

As it stands, Governor Bill Haslam’s proposed budget for 2017-18 includes $10.05 million for capital projects at the park, but is missing the approximately $6.7 million that TDEC asked for to renovate the inn at the park.

The budget request includes, among other projects, funding to build a new restaurant and visitor center at the park, but, as it is currently written, would demolish the 60-room inn, without replacement. The request would leave the 12-room motel facility at the park as well as the five cabins that the park offers.

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Sub kills lawsuit shield for drivers hitting protesters

A bill granting immunity from lawsuits to motorists who hit protesters – provided the driver was using “due care” – was killed on voice vote by the House Civil Justice Committee on Wednesday.

The bill (HB668) was sponsored by Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough. At the hearing, a leading critic was Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, who  said the bill would be constitutionally suspect and embolden people to think they can hit protesters. He read tweets about President Donald Trump’s visit to Nashville last week, including one that incorrectly says it’s legal to run over protesters because of the bill, according to a brief AP report.

Hill said he doesn’t endorse those comments, and his bill doesn’t intend to sanction driving into protesters.

NOTE: The Senate approved 29-2 Thursday SB902 by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, which make it a crime to obstruct traffic on public road if the obstruction blocks an emergency vehicle. The penalty would be a $200 fine. It’s scheduled for a House floor vote next week.

Blackburn holds a town hall meeting; protesters hold ‘alternative’

Protesters held what they called an “Alternative Town Hall” meeting Tuesday outside of the Fairview City Hall where U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, took questions in a Town Hall meeting. Media

Inside, Blackburn “took on pointed questions about President Donald Trump’s first month in office and plans to replace the Affordable Care Act,” reports WPLN.

There were groans as Blackburn defended Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education. And also when Blackburn defended the Republican Congress and the Trump administration on issues like the environment, abortion and immigration.

But there was none of the sustained booing or derisive chants that have characterized town halls in other parts of the country.

One questioner was James Burks, a Brentwood resident and retired educator. Burks is fighting late-stage cancer. He’s received multiple amputations, including of his right arm, and he says his treatments cost $22,000 a visit.

Burks urged Blackburn to work across the aisle to deal with soaring health care costs. It drew the biggest applause of the event.

“I wanted the message to get across that we’re not Democrats and Republicans opposed to one another,” he said afterward. “The people on the lawn, that are marching in the streets and so on, are a mixture of people who have a need to be heard.”

Further from WTVF-TV:

While Blackburn took questions inside, people rallied at the “alternative” town hall. The crowd chanted and speakers talked about their frustrations with the current administration.

Event organizer Bernie Ellis explained that as part of the alternative town hall, constituents of congressman Blackburn recorded messages and questions for Blackburn which will be sent to her office.

“This really is an opportunity to go on tape asking the representative a question or sharing a concern with her, something that I don’t think has ever been done in this kind of way,” he said.

…Congressman Blackburn did address the crowd briefly after the town hall meeting, saying she appreciates the opinions of her constituents and hopes they can work together in the future.

Note: The event drew lots of media attention and reports vary on size of the crowds. The Tennessean’s report estimates about 130 inside; 80 outside.

Protesters prompt McNally to push tighter security

A day after shouting protesters stopped two legislators from holding a Legislative Plaza press conference, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said Thursday that a return to tighter security measures at the state Capitol complex is needed.

From The Tennessean:

McNally said… that he is considering reinstating a policy that was eliminated to require visitors to the legislature to have an ID scanned and wear a badge while visiting. He said some of the behavior from protestors, like preventing them from getting on elevators and leaving “shouldn’t occur.”

“We’re in favor of going back to have a little more security,” McNally said.

The move would require a joint effort between both Senate and House leadership.

McNally said it may require an entry process similar to what is used in most schools, which require visitors to scan an ID at an entry point and wear a visitor’s badge.

“I think people having name tags on, it’s a little bit of a deterrent to being violent or disruptive,” McNally said.

Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, said constituents should have easy access to their representatives, and the House Democratic Caucus will soon begin having come-one-come-all type meetings weekly in the Plaza to allow constituents to ask questions.

“We should be bending over backwards to allow the public to come speak with us,” he said.

Note: Previous post on protesters stopping the new conference is HERE.

‘Bathroom bill’ news conference stopped by protesters

A press conference State Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, and Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, was first disrupted by protesters, then cancelled on Wednesday afternoon. Some of the protesters then followed the legislators into a Legislative Plaza hallway, confronting them with slogans and critical commentary, until Beavers and Pody were escorted from the Plaza by state troopers.

The Wilson County lawmakers had announced in an email to media they would “discuss HB888/SB771 (Bathroom Bill) and HB892/SB752 (Defense of Natural Marriage Act)” at the news conference.

The “bathroom bill” would requires transgender persons to use the rest room designated for their birth gender. The “Defense of Natural Marriage Act, according to the summary on the legislative website, “states the policy of Tennessee to defend natural marriage between one man and one woman regardless of any court decision to the contrary.” Both are sponsored by  Beavers and Pody.

About 100 protesters filled the seats in a House committee hearing before Pody and  Beavers arrived and sat quietly, bearing signs such as ‘Flush the bathroom bill” and “No hate in out state.” When the legislators walked in, Pody began reading a statement – starting by quoting a 2006 state constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

But protesters in the crowd then began shouting things such as “Pull the bill” and “You’re wasting taxpayer money.” The legislators then left the room. Reporters followed, but so did perhaps 15 or 20 of the protesters, continuing to confront the legislators, who offered no comment.

“Are you legislating from the Bible, sir, or are you legislating from the constitution?” said one man, loudly, to Pody.

Highway Patrol officers, including Col. Tracy Trott, escorted Pody and Beavers separately to an elevator they could take to their cars in the Plaza parking garage.

Note: For more quotes and commentary, see Cari Wade Gervin’s report HERE.

Bill giving civil immunity to drivers who hit protesters draws protests

A group of protesters rallied in front of radio station WHCB Tuesday to protest a bill sponsored by Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, that would grant civil immunity to drivers who unintentionally injure protesters, reports the Johnson City Press.

The protesters chose the radio station at 2175 Hwy 75 because Hill hosts his radio show, Bible Buddies, at that station and does not have a local office.

If passed, the bill, HB0668, would take effect July 1 and protesters injured by drivers would not be able to sue them. Hill specified that the bill would not protect drivers who intentionally or carelessly injure protesters from criminal charges.

“We want to remind Matthew Hill that he does have constituents, and we are paying attention to the bills that he has written and introduced within the last several days, and they did not come from us,” event organizer Ruth Taylor Read said. “He’s not representing us and we want him to know that.”

… Read said Indivisible Tri-Cities invited state representatives for a meeting at Covenant Presbyterian church in Kingsport on Sunday, but so far only Rep. Bud Husley has agreed to meet with members of the group.

“We are tired of them representing their own personal interests instead of our own,” she said. “That’s not what we pay them to do. And now we are paying attention, we’re watching. We’re holding them accountable.”