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.

A national organization that tracks efforts on higher education campuses to suppress the exercise of free speech has declared that Tennessee is, on whole, basically average when it comes to universities respecting First Amendment liberties.

Given the disquieting level of intolerance for controversial opinions and divergent points of view at American colleges these days, that isn’t all that great.

“The vast majority of students at America’s top colleges and universities surrender their free speech rights the moment they step onto campus,” according to a press release this week from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. “In Tennessee, 88 percent of institutions restrict some amount of free speech.”

FIRE recently published a nationwide study titled, “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses.”

In the report, the Philadelphia-based group surveyed written policies pertaining to protections and restrictions on free speech at both public and private universities. The FIRE researchers concluded that nearly 90 percent of the schools they examined “maintain policies that restrict — or too easily could restrict — student and faculty expression.”

“Colleges should be a place for open debate and intellectual inquiry, but today, almost all colleges silence expression through policies that are often illiberal and, at public institutions, unconstitutional,” said Laura Beltz, FIRE’s lead author of the study.

FIRE uses a three-tiered system of rating individual schools that applies “red light,” “yellow light” or “green light” designations. A “red light” means an institution maintains “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” A “yellow” rating means the school enforces policies that “by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.” A “green light” signifies that “a college or university’s policies do not seriously imperil speech.”

“A green light does not indicate that a school actively supports free expression,” the report notes. “It simply means that FIRE is not currently aware of any serious threats to students’ free speech rights in the policies on that campus.”

Both Middle Tennessee State University and Tennessee Tech University received yellow ratings.

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville earned a green light, making it “one of just two SEC East universities to earn FIRE’s highest rating for speech.”

Of the eight Tennessee schools FIRE rated, only Tennessee State University was hit with a red light grade.

All in all, the FIRE report’s authors say there is actually some room for optimism in the report — despite the continuing reality that “far too many colleges across the country fail to live up to their free speech obligations in policy and in practice.”

For the eleventh year in a row, the share of schools earning a red light has gone down. Last year it was above 32 percent, this year it is 28.5.

“In further good news, more and more colleges and universities continue to adopt policy statements in support of free speech modeled after the one adopted by the University of Chicago in January 2015,” the report’s executive summary observes. “As of this writing, 50 schools or faculty bodies have endorsed a version of the free speech policy statement known as the ‘Chicago Statement,’ with 14 adoptions in 2018 alone.”

During Tennessee’s 2017 state legislative session, lawmakers passed a measure called the “Campus Free Speech Protection Act.” That legislation directed public institutions across the Volunteer State to establish policies that “embrace a commitment to the freedom of speech and expression for all students and faculty.”

In a press release issued after Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed the act into law, FIRE described it as containing “some of the country’s strongest protections for student and faculty speech on public college campuses.”

Press Release from the Tennessee Firearms Association, March 22, 2018:

Rep. Jeremy Faison expresses frustration with a “special kind of stupid” as one of Beth Harwell’s House committees continues to play games with his legislation on medical marijuana.

Tennessee Firearms Association wants to recognize with appreciation the frustration that has caused Rep. Jeremy Faison to finally share with the public the hard facts of trying to pass controversial legislation even when the law or facts might be otherwise clear.

His comments related to his efforts to enact “medical marijuana” legislation, a topic not normally addressed by TFA other than its impact under federal law on the 2nd Amendment rights of those who might be helped by such a law. However, his comments evidencing his frustrations with Beth Harwell’s committee leaders and system are strikingly similar to the problems that 2nd Amendment advocates have experienced repeatedly and consistently under a Republican “super majority” when led by the wrong kinds of leaders.

On March 21, Rep. Faison presented his medical marijuana legislation to the House Criminal Justice committee. The bill debate started but did not finish. Speaking to reporters after his bill was pushed off, Rep. Faison’s frustrations with the situation were evident in his comments as recorded by a local news station:

“You gotta be a special kind of stupid to not realize this helps Parkinson’s,” Faison said. “This whole notion that this is a schedule one drug, you are a special kind of ignorant human being if you think this is still a schedule one drug. That means there’s no value to human life. Holy smokes. Why don’t you tell that to all of the people who are illegally alive today that this plant has no value to them.”

Over the last 8 years, the super majority of Republicans in the Tennessee legislature have been under the total control of certain individuals who identify as Republicans. During this time bills to eliminate infringements on the 2nd Amendment and the Tennessee constitution have repeatedly been shut down in the committee system or in the Senate under the thumb of the Lt. Governor and Judiciary chairman Brian Kelsey.

Sadly, those conspiring in the shenanigans and stunts often rely heavily on representatives from law enforcement, Haslam’s administration, the TBI, and the Department of Safety rather than to rely on the single sentence comprising the 2nd Amendment.

What bill topics have they killed?

– constitutional carry
– permitless open carry
– permitless concealed carry
– eliminate gun free zones
– decriminalize the posting statute relative to private property
– holding businesses and government agencies that post “no guns” liable to individuals injured as a result of those policies
– prohibit 2nd Amendment based discrimination by local governments
– allow citizens to have private rights of action against government officials over 2nd Amendment violations
– exempt permit holders from the TICS/NICS system
– eliminate the TICS system (at a cost of over $5,000,000 per year to gun owners) and proceed under the NICS system
– failures to treat all “citizens” equally relative to the rights of self-defense, carrying of arms, and reciprocity
– true restoration of rights on entry of a court order of restoration or pardon
– allow school employees who want to carry to do so
– campus carry for college students
– campus carry for parents and adults
– eliminate inclusion of antique weapons as a “firearm” so that state and federal definitions are consistent; and
– enforce the 10th Amendment against federal infringements of the 2nd Amendment

… just to name a few.

Now, not all gun owners may be 100% on all of these issues. That’s ok – that is how a constitutional republic works.

However, it is critical to understand that through stunts and shenanigans by leadership and the committee chairs over the last 8 years these issues are not even getting to the floors of the respective houses for consideration and debate by all legislators. That is outright disenfranchisement of the voters because probably 80%-90% of the elected legislators in the last 8 years have never had the opportunity or the duty to debate or to vote and be held accountable on these topics. Sadly, that same 80-90% have never acted in unison to demand that these issues be put before them on the floors of the House or Senate.

What can you say about 8 years of votes, stonewalling, stunts, shenanigans and dereliction in a system set up and controlled by the Legislative leadership to make sure that these bills are never openly heard and debated on the House or Senate floors by all elected representatives and senators?

Do they not understand that these issues implicate constitutionally protected rights? Do they not understand that these issues directly impact the capacity for individuals to defend themselves, their spouses, their families and friends? Do they not understand that keeping, bearing and wearing arms are not just about hunting or recreational activities?

Borrowing from Rep. Faison’s frustrations on medical marijuana should we now be asking if these legislators who are at fault for these shenanigans and abuses are a “special kind of stupid” or a “special kind of ignorant”? Is it something even worse than failing to comprehend the constitutional significance? Is it something worse than ignoring campaign promises? Is it a willingness to disenfranchise the citizens of 80-90% of the state whose elected legislators are never called upon to consider and vote on these issues?

Again, TFA applauds the enthusiasm that Rep. Faison has shown on a topic that is clearly important to him and on which he is trying get a vote. TFA applauds Rep. Faison for looking past the stonewalling and raising the important question for voters and citizens of whether such failures are special stupidity, special ignorance or something else.

If you are tired of the stonewalling, the shenanigans, the disenfranchisement that has been the standard operating procedures under Beth Harwell’s leadership – then you need to be doing something about it. Call your legislators and demand that all 2nd Amendment bills be brought to the floor this year – this election year. Go ahead – demand it because our bet is that they will simply listen but not do it. Then, after they have been given a chance we encourage you to go to the polls in August and vote to replace those who have conspired to disenfranchise you, those who have ignored the constitution and those who have stood by as mere spectators while their peers have so clearly chosen to keep these important issues from public hearings, debate and consideration by all elected legislators.

Let your voice be heard and contact your legislators. You can identify your legislators on this website tool.

PRESS RELEASE from the State of Tennessee, May 16, 2017:

All 56 Parks Will Offer Free, Guided Hikes Saturday, June 3

NASHVILLE – Tennessee State Parks will celebrate National Trails Day with free, guided hikes at all 56 parks on Saturday, June 3.

Events will include free, ranger-led hikes through areas with waterfalls and scenic vistas as well as hikes focused on local history and trail clean-ups. With more than 1,000 miles of trails ranging from easy, paved paths to rugged backcountry trails, there’s a hike for everyone. Several Tennessee State Natural Areas are hosting offering free, guided hikes at Short Springs Natural Area, Hampton Creek Cove State Natural Area and Big Cypress Tree State Natural Area.

“While Tennessee State Parks are free to enter year-round, this day is a great opportunity to get the most of your visit,” said Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Deputy Commissioner of Parks and Conservation Brock Hill. “Under the skilled guidance of our rangers, visitors can enjoy the outdoors and learn more about the state parks system that we have been refining for 80 years.”

Since 1993, the American Hiking Society has set aside the first Saturday in June as National Trails Day. The goal is to bring together outdoor enthusiasts of all backgrounds to participate in educational exhibits, trail dedications, gear demonstrations, instructional workshops and trail projects.

The National Trails Day hikes represent the third in a series of statewide hiking events for 2017. Additional statewide hiking events include First Hikes in early January, Spring Hikes in March, National Public Lands Day Hikes in September and an After-Thanksgiving Day Hike in November.

A list of all National Trails Day hikes at Tennessee State Parks can be found at http://tnstateparks.com/about/special-events/national-trail-day/#/?holiday=national-trails-day-hikes.

Tennessee State Parks offer diverse natural, recreational and cultural experiences for individuals, families or business and professional groups. State park features range from pristine natural areas to 18-hole championship golf courses. There is a state park within an hour’s drive of just about anywhere in the state, offering a variety of recreational, lodging and dining choices. For more information about Tennessee State Parks, visit their recently updated website at www.tnstateparks.com.

Tennessee tragically epitomized that axiomatic phrase used to describe America’s terrible 19th Century sectional conflict, “brother against brother.” Read more

Tennesseans in these parts love hitting the slopes, using any means necessary, anytime there’s a substantial snowfall. This video was shot at the top of Indian Creek Road just off Highway 70 west of Smithville.