State officials say they’ve addressed concerns and issues that may have played a role in a child’s drowning this spring, and they’re ready to reopen the scenic waterfall swimming hole along the Blackburn Fork River in Jackson County.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation issued a press release Tuesday outlining changes to safety policies at Cummins Falls State Park, where earlier this year a 2-year-old boy was swept away to his death during a June 8 flash flood.

TDEC reports that a weather scanning station has been established and will enable rangers to “monitor watershed-specific radar during park operating hours.”

“Park staff will evacuate the gorge when radar indicates rain anywhere in the watershed, not just the park itself,” Bryson said. “This is the most conservative and appropriate protocol at this time.”

River monitoring gauges are also now in place upstream from the falls. They will measure water levels and send electronic communication alerts to park officials and regional rescue teams in the event that waters rapidly rise, according to TDEC’s Aug. 13 news release, which is posted below:

TDEC Implements Comprehensive Safety Improvement Strategy at Cummins Falls State Park

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has implemented a comprehensive safety improvement strategy at Cummins Falls State Park and will reopen the falls and gorge on Aug. 14 if weather conditions permit.

The additions will include new policies for minors, additional signage, additional safety-related information on the Cummins Falls State Park webpage, a safety education video for public viewing at the park, real-time weather monitoring, water monitoring, refuge areas in case of an evacuation and increased personnel.

“We are glad to be in a position to reopen Cummins Falls with added enhanced safety tools and procedures that we are putting into place,” TDEC Deputy Commissioner Jim Bryson said. “This area is an extremely rugged area in a dynamic watershed that will never be completely risk free, and the best way to enhance safety is to take a comprehensive approach, and in this case that means new policies, educational tools and wet-weather protocols for our visitors.”

Three new policies are being added regarding access to the gorge and falls:

  • Each child 12 and under must be accompanied by an adult.
  • Each child 12 and under must have a life jacket.
  • Each child 12 and under must wear the life jacket when swimming.

TDEC also encourages children ages five and under to not enter the falls and gorge areas.

Signage at the trailhead and in the gorge area in English and Spanish will warn of the dangers of flash flooding and provide instructions in the event of a flood. The Cummins Falls State Park webpage will include an informative pop-up that will alert prospective visitors to the potential dangers and strenuous nature of the falls and the hike into the falls. A temporary visitor center has been erected over the trail leading to the falls. It is equipped with two 70-inch monitors playing a safety video on loop as visitors prepare to enter the trail.

A weather monitoring station at the park now serves as the central hub for weather monitoring efforts. Located adjacent to the trailhead, park staff will monitor watershed-specific radar during park operating hours.

“Park staff will evacuate the gorge when radar indicates rain anywhere in the watershed, not just the park itself,” Bryson said. “This is the most conservative and appropriate protocol at this time.”

In coordination with Tennessee Tech University, three river monitoring gauges have been installed on tributaries upstream from the falls to measure water levels. These gauges will send texts and email alerts to all Cummins Falls park staff when water levels rise significantly. The alerts will also be sent to two local 911 emergency response centers.

The monitoring gauges have been installed and TDEC has been reviewing the data to better understand the dynamics of the watershed. The system will become predictive over time, but more data is needed.

“At this time, we are not comfortable with the monitoring data itself being the first mechanism to warn visitors of an influx of water into the gorge,” Bryson said. “We will use the data we are collecting as a secondary layer of safety until the system becomes more predictive.”

If the park is evacuated, three refuge areas located above all known flood levels have been cleared of brush and clearly marked. These areas provide easy access to high ground where visitors can seek refuge until they are evacuated or the water recedes.

The park is adding at least two seasonal employees to assist with managing crowds at the park and assist with weather monitoring, visitor education and visitor safety.

“I am pleased with the comprehensive approach and due diligence TDEC has put in to make the park safer for our citizens,” State Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, said. “Cummins Falls is a world-class recreational destination, but safety will continue to be top priority.”

“We asked TDEC to step up its game in terms of safety at Cummins Falls, and they have delivered,” State Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, said. “I encourage anyone in my district who visits Cummins Falls to please review all safety information provided and take guidance from park rangers very seriously.”

“TDEC has taken several additional measures to enhance safety at Cummins Falls,” State Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, said. “Cummins Falls is a beautiful place, but people should continue to put safety first when they visit.”

Crossville Republican Cameron Sexton has been nominated by the GOP caucus of the Tennessee House of Representatives to serve as the chamber’s highest ranking officer.

State Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville

The House’s supermajority-strong Republican bloc met in Nashville Wednesday to select a replacement for Glen Casada, who is stepping down as a result of a sex, drugs and racism texting scandal involving his former chief of staff. Casada will resign at the end of this week.

The 48-year-old Sexton currently serves as the GOP caucus chairman. He beat out five other lawmakers seeking the speakership nomination, including Ryan Williams of Cookeville.

Because Republicans vastly outnumber Democrats in the House, Sexton is virtually guaranteed to win the speakership vote when the full chamber convenes in special session next month.

 

 

Jonesborough, Tenn. — The former East Tennessee State University student accused of violating Black Lives Matter protesters’ civil rights during one of their campus demonstrations three years ago has been found not guilty of the most serious charges he faced.

Twenty-one year old Tristan Rettke, who grew up in Middle Tennessee and now attends college out of state, was acquitted in Washington County Criminal Court Wednesday afternoon of two counts of civil rights intimidation and two counts of disorderly conduct stemming from an incident in 2016 when he showed up at the BLM protest wearing a gorilla mask and handing out bananas to a cluster of African American students taking part in the demonstration.

Tristan Rettke (left) and his attorney, Patrick Denton.

Rettke was convicted however on a misdemeanor charge of interrupting a meeting or procession. The BLM students had reserved a spot outside the ETSU campus library prior to their protest.

Rettke’s defense lawyer, Patrick Denton, who is originally from Cookeville, expressed disappointment his client wasn’t fully exonerated and said an appeal may be forthcoming.

However, he hailed the jury’s verdict on the civil rights violations — both felonies carrying two-to-four year state prison sentences — as a “vindication for the First Amendment.”

“I am a First Amendment absolutist, so this trial meant something to me,” Denton told reporters after the verdict was delivered. From the outset of the case Denton said he was certain the district attorney general’s office was misapplying the civil rights intimidation statute by suggesting Rettke was trying to silence the protesters through coercion or threats.

In fact, said Denton, if anyone’s guilty of attempting to intimidate a person from exercising their free-speech rights it is the prosecuting attorneys in the case, and Rettke is the victim.

“I could never quite get the state to see the irony in that,” Denton said.

Rettke left the building without comment.

Erin McArdle, the lead prosecutor, said she wasn’t entirely surprised by the verdict because she found it difficult to anticipate what the outcome would be. “This case was one of those that I couldn’t predict anything from the very beginning,” she said, adding that a hung jury had seemed the most likely to her.

Despite the jury’s repudiation of prosecution arguments that Rettke’s actions fit a legal definition of intimidation, McArdle said the type of behavior he displayed “won’t be tolerated” in the future.

McArdle said she stands by her decision to prosecute Rettke on felony charges in spite of the jury verdict.

Jurors are scheduled to take up deliberations Wednesday in the Washington County civil rights intimidation case involving a former East Tennessee State University student who wore a gorilla mask to a Black Lives Matter demonstration.

Lawyers for both the prosecution and the defendant, 21-year-old Tristan Rettke, finished up closing arguments Tuesday following a day of testimony from witnesses who as ETSU students in 2016 attended the BLM campus protest Rettke stands accused of illegally interrupting.

The students who testified for the prosecution all claimed they were shocked and deeply offended when Rettke arrived on the scene wearing the gorilla mask and dangling bananas from a piece of rope in an obvious attempt to mock them.

The students, all of them black and most of them involved in African American-focused activist groups, each said they took the rope to symbolize a noose, which left them fearing for their safety. One student said the rope brought to mind slavery and lynching. Another said she regarded the rope as “a weapon.”

The lead prosecutor for the case, Assistant District Attorney Erin McArdle, later argued that Rettke’s “sole purpose was to provoke the other students” by displaying “symbols of hate and oppression.”

Rettke is charged with two felony counts of civil rights intimidation and three lesser charges, including disorderly conduct and disrupting a meeting.

Jurors also heard from the Rettke himself for the first time, albeit indirectly.

Rettke didn’t take the stand Tuesday, but prosecutors played an audio recording of the then 18-year-old’s interview with a campus police officer after he was taken away from the scene of the BLM protest.

In it, Rettke offered a glimpse into his thinking prior to the event.

He described his conduct as “a practical joke of sorts.” Rettke said he was trying to get a reaction from the students for his personal amusement.

“To be honest, I didn’t have any specific thought process toward what the gorilla mask meant — it was more about what other people would think,” Rettke told the officer. He said later likened his behavior to “an experiment to see their reactions.”

Neither Rettke nor the officer made any mention of a “noose” during the interview. Rettke said he was using the bananas to “bait” the BLM protesters.

When pressed about the meaning of the gorilla mask, Rettke said, “With recent action of Black Lives Matter, it resembles ape-like behavior — rioting, looting, blocking traffic, destroying property.”

In a written statement to police, Rettke indicated confusion as to why he was in trouble given that he’d heard about or observed street preachers confronting homosexual students in the free speech zone with inflammatory religious rhetoric.

Rettke’s defense attorney, Johnson City lawyer Patrick Denton, later argued that Rettke’s statements to police and also an earlier post he’d made on an internet message board expressing criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement indicated a political message was part of his actions. For those reasons alone, Rettke’s behavior should be viewed as an admittedly offensive but nevertheless First Amendment-protected form of counter-protest, said Denton.

Denton noted in his closing argument that the jury instructions already established for the case declare that the defendant cannot be convicted “for the manner of expression or the actual content of his opinions.”

“What else is there? What else are they asking you to find him guilty based on?” Denton said to the jury. “He didn’t touch anybody. He didn’t threaten anybody. Those two things encompass it all, and that is why I have to say he’s not guilty of any of these crimes — it’s not even close.”

The jury is scheduled to receive final instructions from the judge and go into deliberations Wednesday morning.

The trial of a young man accused of violating the civil rights of African American students three years ago at East Tennessee State University got underway on Monday.

Jurors listened to opening remarks from attorneys in a case that will have them decide whether confrontational actions by a lone counter-protester at a campus Black Lives Matter demonstration in 2016 crossed a constitutional line from protected free speech into the realm of unlawful harassment.

Prosecutors in Washington County say former ETSU student Tristan Rettke sought to intimidate his schoolmates when he showed up at a designated campus free-speech plaza in September 2106 wearing a gorilla mask and handing out bananas in the midst of a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Rettke, an 18-year-old first-semester freshmen at the time, was barefooted and wearing overalls during the incident, in which he also flaunted a burlap sack depicting a Confederate flag and cannabis leaf as well as a sign reading “Lives Matter.”

In addition, he tied bananas to a strand of rope and dangled them in front of the BLM protesters. Witnesses for the prosecution claim Rettke’s purpose was to insinuate a lynching threat, although the defense denies that.

Led by Assistant District Attorney General Erin McArdle, the state claims Rettke’s behavior constituted felony-level harassment and bullying. Rettke was attempting to coerce the protestors into refraining from exercising their constitutional rights to freedom of speech, McArdle said.

Rettke, who withdrew from the university soon after the incident, is charged with two counts of civil rights intimidation, as well as two counts of disorderly conduct and one count of disrupting a meeting.

McArdle said “obvious racial overtones” permeate the case, especially considering the “history of oppression” blacks have encountered in America. She suggested Rettke’s actions with the rope, which he’d tied into “some kind of noose-looking thing,” were comparable to one person making a throat-slitting gesture toward another, or someone presenting a Jew with an image of a swastika. McArdle suggested that, under certain circumstances, reasonable people might conclude such communications “could be intimidating.”

Rettke’s attorney, Patrick Denton of Johnson City, argues that his client’s actions — even though offensive, confrontational and admittedly ill-conceived — were nevertheless constitutionally protected to the same degree as the right of the BLM demonstrators to publicly present their message.

Rettke’s conduct should be thought of as an example of heckling or a counter protest, he said.

Denton compared Rettke’s actions to publicly burning an American flag, or when religious zealots protest at military funerals. Both may be deeply offensive to many, but both are nonetheless protected expressions of free speech, he said.

“We don’t need the First Amendment to protect speech that is popular,” said Denton.

He added, “It is not a crime to make people angry.”

Denton also noted that, considering the controversial nature of the Black Lives Matter movement, the protesting students “should have considered the possibility of competing or even demeaning” responses to their demonstration.

He also called into question the sincerity of prosecution witnesses who claim they were legitimately intimidated by Rettke’s behavior, pointing out that Rettke was outnumbered significantly by BLM protesters and sympathetic bystanders at the scene.

A lot of Monday was spent with attorneys for both sides, as well as Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice, quizzing prospective jurors about their beliefs on the nature and breadth of freedom of speech in America. Also discussed was prospective jurors’ willingness and ability to set aside preconceived notions they may have drawn about the case, which has garnered significant local media attention.

The case is somewhat unusual in that the jury is being asked to weigh and consider complex and difficult free-speech matters typically left to judges, appellate justices and legal scholars.

Judge Rice acknowledged that free-speech cases can be complicated. “There are entire law school classes” dedicated to analyzing and examining the nuances of such difficult constitutional matters, she said.

She noted that many First Amendment issues “have been the subject of litigation all the way through the courts to the United States Supreme Court.” However, Rice promised to give the jury precise instructions as to how they should weigh the evidence against the specifics of law.

“There is some legal analysis that is required by you as jurors.” said Rice. “But you will be given everything that you are needed to apply the law to the evidence of this case.”

Another curious aspect of the case is that the key piece of evidence — a 9-minute video shot by a former ETSU student named Thomas Grant Madison — is claimed by both the prosecution and the defense to prove their respective claims in the case.

Jurors were in fact shown the video twice Monday afternoon — once during the opening argument by Rettke’s lawyer, and then again a short while later after Madison was called as the prosecution’s first witness. During each screening, the lawyers allowed the video to play without interruption or commentary.

Both sides concur that the video provides an accurate reflection of the events and circumstances of what happened that day in the designated campus free-speech zone outside ETSU’s university library.

Denton told jurors that the video clearly demonstrates that the black students in the vicinity of the BLM protest were in no way intimidated by Rettke’s actions. They may have been angry or outraged — or perhaps even to some degree amused, judging by their laughter recorded in the video — but they were not sincerely frightened, he said.

Madison testified that he was made “very angry” by Rettke’s “antics,” and that his initial reaction was to punch Rettke when the latter offered him a banana.

Madison testified that, in his mind, Rettke’s use of a the rope “was probably the worst part about it.”

“The gorilla thing is silly, the (Confederate flag emblazoned sack) is silly, but the rope was the most threatening thing towards me,” Madison said. He added that when Rettke tied up the bananas and dangled them before the protesters, the impression was that it “signified hanging.”

Madison can be heard laughing loudly throughout the video, and at one point proclaimed, “This is hilarious.” However, he testified after the video was played Monday that Rettke’s behavior was so offensive it was the kind of situation when one has to “laugh to keep from crying” — that feigned amusement was basically a defensive attempt to “make light of the situation.”

“The laughter that you here in the video is not laughing at Tristan, it is laughing to hold something darker inside.,” he said.

More prosecution witnesses will take the stand Tuesday.

Former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has decided he won’t seek to replace retiring United States Sen. Lamar Alexander in the 2020 election.

An op-ed written by Haslam appeared on the Tennessean’s website Thursday announcing the decision not run.

Both Haslam and Alexander are Republicans, and each served two terms as the Tennessee state government’s highest elected officeholder.

“While I think serving in the United States Senate would be a great privilege and responsibility, I have come to the conclusion that it is not my calling for the next period of my life,” Haslam said. “This is a difficult decision because I have loved my time in public service and I believe so deeply in the importance of our political process.”

Haslam said wrestling “with the possibility of running for the United States Senate” has been “the hardest vocational decision of my life.”

As yet, only Vanderbilt surgeon Manni Sethi has announced he’s running for the Republican nomination to replace Alexander. Others said to be considering joining the race include U.S. Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty, freshman GOP U.S. Rep. Mark Green*, former Congresswoman Diane Black and U.S. Rep David Kustuff.

James Mackler, a Nashville attorney, is running as a Democrat.

*Update: Green announced later Thursday that he won’t run for Alexander’s Senate seat.

Plenty more simian imbecility to go around this time too

A three-year running free-speech fiasco is approaching an apex in Washington County, and it befittingly coincides with the 94th anniversary of the legendary Tennessee Scopes Monkey Trial of July 1925.

A former East Tennessee State University student is scheduled July 15 to begin standing trial before a jury in Jonesborough on charges he violated fellow students’ civil rights by donning a gorilla mask and handing out bananas to Black Lives Matter protesters in the school’s free-speech zone.

In September 2016, an 18-year-old first-semester freshman named Tristan Rettke, who is white, was arrested and charged with a seldom used Tennessee statute designed to punish people who attempt to “unlawfully intimidate” others from exercising their constitutional rights

Subsequently released from custody on $10,000 bond, Rettke withdrew from the university shortly thereafter.

During the course of his interactions with the BLM demonstrators in an ETSU campus plaza area outside the university library, the ape-aping Rettke pranced about barefooted in a pair of overalls, dangling bananas from a length of rope, which some protesters said they believed symbolized a noose. Rettke also at times flourished a burlap bag emblazoned with a Confederate flag and a cannabis leaf — and at one point displayed a piece of paper bearing the handwritten words, “Lives Matter.”

Rettke at another point said to the protestors, “I identify as a gorilla.” When asked the purpose of his actions, Rettke said, “I’m out here to support you guys.”

Prior to making contact with Rettke, one of the white ETSU campus police officers observing the scene commented, “He can’t be doing that bullshit.” Later, Rettke was led away by police — whereupon he was unmasked to the hoots, jeers and intimations of potential future reprisals by BLM protestors.

Six months later, a grand jury indicted Rettke on the civil rights charges, as well as two counts of disorderly conduct and disrupting a meeting or procession.

Prosecutors for Tennessee’s First Judicial District claim in their court filings that when asked by police if his intent was to equate black students to subhuman primates, Rettke reportedly stated, “I knew it would invoke that thought process,” and that he “knew they were getting mad.”

The district attorney general’s office argues that Rettke’s behavior during the affair “clearly falls into the areas of expression that are not afforded protection by the First Amendment, specifically, the ‘fighting words’ exception or the ‘incitement to violence’ exception.”

Free Speech Zone Coverage

As luck and justice would have it, much of the ruckus was captured on video, and can be viewed here.

The 9-minute video, shot by ETSU student Thomas Grant Madison, gives a reasonably thorough indication of what happened that day in a designated campus free-speech zone, where students are permitted to gather and express opinions after first obtaining authorization from school administrators.

Spoiler alert: The only person in any apparent imminent danger throughout the video was Rettke himself. Indeed, praise was later conferred upon the black students for demonstrating forbearance — namely, for not kicking Rettke’s monkey ass all over the free-speech zone.

Recourse to violence was in fact discussed among the BLM protestors, but it was expressly eschewed. “I’ma whup his muhfuckin’ ass,” and “I really just want to kill you,” were audible comments from the BLM protesters, followed by exhortations to maintain composure from other students, who reckoned that triggering a physical altercation was precisely Rettke’s objective.

Rettke’s comportment that day went “against the values of our university where people come first and all are treated with dignity and respect,” ETSU President Brian Noland said in a statement later. “We are exceptionally proud of the students who were peacefully participating in the event and the manner in which they exercised restraint, thoughtfulness and strength in the face of inappropriate and offensive behavior.”

All the same, First Amendment advocates and legal specialists who’ve examined the case are left with the impression that the prosecutors in East Tennessee, as well as university administrators, are apparently unschooled in developments involving American free-speech jurisprudence over the past hundred years.

Hung Jury or Lynch Mob?

Rettke’s lawyer, Patrick Denton, maintains First Amendment case law is decidedly on his client’s side — although whether a Tennessee jury will agree remains to be seen.

Jury nullification may also come into play. That’s what happens when one or more members of the panel refuse on moral or ethical grounds to convict, despite sufficient evidence that the defendant is technically guilty of the violation charged — particularly when the law or charges at issue are perceived as constitutionally suspect or lacking righteous legitimacy. 

To Denton, a criminal defense attorney typically more at home arguing Fourth and Fifth Amendment issues than the intricacies of the First, one of the most vexing aspects of the case is that the events occurred in what’s purportedly a free-speech zone. From his own personal point of view, this case has brought Denton around to the informed conclusion that free-speech zones are a noxious, constitution-affronting concept.

“There shouldn’t be such a thing as a free-speech zone,” Denton said. “You know what the free-speech zone should be? Everywhere. Every public place. If there has to be a free-speech zone, does that mean that constitutional rights are selectively protected based on where people are?”

Denton said he expects the judge to allow him satisfactory latitude to “educate the jury on the First Amendment framework as best that I can.” If a conviction nonetheless results, Denton said an appeal will certainly ensue.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which — like the Tennessee ACLU, has opposed Rettke’s prosecution from the outset — notes that the “fighting words exception” cited in the DA office’s court filing represents an antiquated, obsolete legal doctrine that’s been “so deeply contradicted by a number of later Supreme Court cases that it is considered essentially dead.”

“The provocative nature of Rettke’s conduct stems from the fact that it is nearly universally considered to be offensive,” wrote FIRE’s Adam Steinbaugh in wake of the incident. “Yet, the offensive nature of speech is not a basis for the state to punish the speaker, as the First Amendment protects offensive speech. In the same vein, laws that base their application on whether others are offended fail to provide adequate notice to speakers as to what conduct is or is not prohibited.”

Tennessee ACLU president Hedy Weinberg said Rettke’s taunting “through the use of such charged and painful racist symbols” was unequivocally repugnant.

Nevertheless, she believes Rettke actions constitute no crime.

“While the student in this instance clearly intended to mock and provoke people, from video of the incident he did not appear to be making a targeted threat or to be creating a real fear of bodily harm,” said Weinberg. “Particularly in a public forum space where First Amendment protections are at their height, even this kind of contemptible racist speech is protected by the First Amendment.”

1st Amdt: An Open Invitation to Disputes

One case precedent that seems naturally relevant here dates back eight decades, when SCOTUS asserted that public officials in America are constitutionally precluded from punishing people for provoking others to anger through the exercise of speech.

By its very nature, “a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute,” declared Justice William O. Douglas, writing for the majority in the Supreme Court’s 1949 Terminiello v. City of Chicago opinion.

That ruling overturned a priest’s conviction for “breach of the peace” resulting from a speech he gave that sparked a riot by protestors angered at his fulminations against Jews and President Franklin  Roosevelt, who, it’s worth noting in our current age of nakedly partisan judicial outcome-engineering, was responsible for nominating Douglas to the court of last resort in the first place.

Douglas, widely regarded as one of America’s staunchest 20th Century civil libertarian jurists, wrote that freedom of speech “may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”

“Speech is often provocative and challenging,” he wrote.

And oftentimes expressions of controversial or contentious notions “may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects,” Douglas wrote, adding that while perhaps not entirely absolute, the right to free speech in America is “nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest.”

“There is no room under our Constitution for a more restrictive view,” Douglas concluded. “For the alternative would lead to standardization of ideas either by legislatures, courts, or dominant political or community groups.”

Given that the circumstances of the case Justice Douglas was writing about involved both the casting of collective ethnic aspersions and an actual resulting riot, it’s difficult to see how Rettke’s actions — which resulted in no violence, and were in fact laughed at by many — could be seen by a sober-minded Bill-of-Rights-supporting observer as not protected by the First Amendment and its relevant case law.

Protecting the Franchise

In fact, Rettke’s inconsiderate clowning arguably resulted, at least in the short run, in just the sort of “high purpose” that Justice Douglas said allowing free speech was designed to serve. It forced the other students to muster the integrity and wisdom to embrace a responsible and civilized course of action and refrain from lashing out in violence, even when provoked by an outrageously offensive exhibition of bigotry.

“It’s crazy that something negative brought so much positivity,” Madison, one of the students who video-recorded Rettke’s antics, said on a Facebook livestream later. “Tristan, if you are listening, I thank you for it. Because me and everybody who went through your despicable display — we’re better people because of it. We are stronger people because of it.”

The exalted and despised Baltimore humorist and quasi-misanthropic newspaper editor H.L. Mencken — whose daunting journalistic talents were put to pitiless literary effect during the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton nearly a century ago — wrote eloquent and relevant words about the nature of free speech that jurors in Jonesborough would do well to take under advisement.

As a lifelong chronicler of political fraud, public folly and societal stupidity, the Sage of Baltimore said he’d become “convinced that free speech is worth nothing unless it includes a full franchise to be foolish and even to be malicious.”

“The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels,” Mencken said. “For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”

The state Department of Agriculture is renaming one of its divisions, and in the process restructuring it under the hopes of better helping agriculture- and forestry-related businesses grow and prosper in Tennessee.

The Agriculture Advancement Division of the department will now be known as the Business Development Division.

A press release issued from the department this week indicated the newly reconfigured and rebranded division will “prioritize agricultural economic development by increasing profitability and viability of farm and forest businesses, which are vital to Tennessee’s rural and overall economy.”

The Business Development Division‘s areas of focus will include both farm-direct marketing and international commercial promotion. The division will also administer crop and livestock subsidy programs.

Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Hatcher said the division’s primary strategic emphasis is fortifying ag and forestry’s economic roots in rural Tennessee counties.

“With this renewed focus on business development, we will work to expand opportunities for agricultural innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship — areas that are crucial to any state’s future success in the agriculture industry,” Hatcher said.

Keith Harrison, a long time veteran of state agriculture department marketing and outreach programs, will lead the division.

Upon taking office in January, Republican Gov. Bill Lee declared that stimulating rural economic growth is a central priority to his administration. One of Lee’s first official acts as governor was to assign all state agencies to develop initiatives to improve how they serve rural communities.

“Despite such growth and prosperity, Tennessee’s rural citizens face challenges unique to their geography that often require a unique response,” Lee declared in his first executive order, issued Jan. 29.

Tennessee lagging behind neighbors in gun-rights protection

This past winter, the Kentucky Legislature approved a new provision allowing any law-abiding citizen in the state to carry a concealed firearm without first having to obtain a government permit.

The law, signed by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in March, takes effect this week.

The refashioned statutory language proclaims that adults 21 years of age or beyond “and otherwise able to lawfully possess a firearm, may carry concealed firearms or other concealed deadly weapons without a license in the same locations as persons with valid licenses issued (by the state).”

Gun-rights advocates say the new measure isn’t really a vast departure from the previous law. In the past, gun owners in the Bluegrass State could legally carry a firearm in public so long as it was visible. However, they were prohibited from concealing a gun without a special permit.

The new law “simply extends the current open carry rule to concealed carry,” according to a National Rifle Association press release in March lauding the state for approving the law.

“Those who obtain permits will still be able to take advantage of the reciprocity agreements that Kentucky has with other states,” the NRA noted.

Kentucky is now the 16th state to recognize “constitutional carry.” Others, according to the NRA, are Alaska, Arizona,, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming. Also on the list are four of Tennessee’s border states: Arkansas, Mississippi and Missouri and now Kentucky.

Second Amendment stalwarts have been pushing constitutional carry in Tennessee for years, but they’ve regularly run into legislative roadblocks, despite ostensibly firearm-friendly Republicans dominating state politics for nearly a decade.

Earlier this year the Tennessee General Assembly approved concealed carry legislation that loosen the requirements for obtaining a permit to carry a gun covertly.

As of January 2020, the new, cheaper concealed-only permit will become available to Tennesseans — and it won’t require them to take an all-day firearms training course. If they can’t prove any prior formal firearms training, they’ll be required to complete a 90-minute online course.

Previously, the state required people to enroll in an eight-hour, in-person instructional safety course to legally carry a firearm in public, concealed or not.

The new law renames the handgun carry permit available under present law as the “enhanced handgun carry permit,” and it creates a new “concealed handgun carry permit,” according to the Tennessee Legislature’s website.

“An enhanced handgun carry permit does not specify the manner in which a handgun must be carried,” a summary of the legislation declares. “A concealed handgun carry permit will only authorize the holder to carry in a concealed manner.”

A concealed-only permit will last eight years and cost $65. The enhanced permit is $100 for the same period.

Use-permit and mandatory safety course under consideration for entry into gorge area after Sunday tragedy

Trails in and out of the Cummins Falls river-gorge area in Jackson County have been closed as a result of a fatal weekend flash flood that took the life of a 2-year-old boy.

Jim Bryson, deputy director of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, issued a memo Wednesday affirming that access to the Blackburn Fork River at Cummins Falls State Park will remain blocked “until we can evaluate the incident and review and implement additional safety protocols.”

The memo was addressed to David W. Salyers, commissioner of TDEC, which is the agency that oversees state parks and natural areas in Tennessee.

“At a minimum, the falls and gorge area will remain closed until the department conducts a full assessment of the circumstances and considers and implements additional protocols to address rain events in the watershed area,” Bryson wrote.

Trails around the state park in the forest above the river gorge are still open.

On Sunday, more than 60 people had to be aided by regional rescue personnel after becoming trapped in the rugged river gorge below Cummins Falls as a result of rising waters and increasingly rapid currents. Fourteen people required “swiftwater or rope evacuation” in order to reach safety.

The child who died, Steven Pierce of Eddyville, Ky., was reportedly separated from his family in treacherous currents and subsequently drowned. His body was located Monday morning “a couple hundred yards” downstream from the falls, a state parks official said.

The sudden stream surge — which arose in just a couple minutes — resulted from thunderstorms dumping rain upstream in the watershed, not over the state park itself, according to state park officials.

Four Tennessee state lawmakers who represent the surrounding region issued a sternly worded letter to Bryson on Tuesday, asking why additional safety measures promised in the past haven’t yet been implemented at the park, which has been the site of fatalities resulting from sudden water-rises before.

“In 2017, your department announced plans to install a warning system at Cummins Falls State Park to better monitor the gorge’s rising water levels,” stated the letter, written by Republican Sen. Paul Bailey of Sparta, House GOP Caucus Chairman Cameron Sexton of Crossville, Republican Rep. Ryan Williams of Cookeville and Democratic Rep. John Mark Windle of Livingston. “It is now June 2019, another life has been lost and the warning system has still not been installed.”

They said assurances were made following the last fatality that “a system would be implemented in an effort to prevent further deaths.”

“Why has this warning system not been installed at Cummins Falls State Park? It is past time to make installing a warning system a priority,” they wrote. “We cannot continue losing precious lives at one of Tennessee’s most visited state parks. We ask for your immediate attention to this matter and prompt installation of a warning system before more lives are lost.”

Bryson’s memo, sent a day after receiving the correspondence from the legislators, outlines a series of “ongoing actions” to improve safety in the gorge. He said an “After Action Report” will examine park polices and investigate park staff’s actions “before, during and after the incident.”

Bryson said TDEC is in communication with the National Weather Service to better monitor the watershed above Cummins Falls and develop “a new protocol for warning of potentially dangerous situations.”

Also, water-level measuring devices will be placed upstream to alert park staff to surge hazards, he said.

“An emergency procurement authorization has been secured to purchase and install a water flow monitoring system as an early warning system,” wrote Bryson, who was just last month appointed to the TDEC position in which he now serves. “It will be installed with all possible speed.”

In the future, the Cummins Falls State Park may establish “a permit requirement that will help us manage the visitation and ensure visitors have attended the safety program before going down into the gorge.”

Cummins Falls park staff, he added, “will be set up to have monitors for regular weather updates and the ability to receive notification from the flow meters that we are working with (Tennessee Tech University) to implement.”