Monday, April 04, 2011

Hamblen County Man's Actions Not Protected "Free Speech" Says TN Supreme Court

A June 24, 2006 anti-immigrant and very emotional rally held in Hamblen County on the lawn of the courthouse drew a massive police presence and one would-be attendee, then 61-year-old Teddy Ray Mitchell, was arrested for disorderly conduct. The case against Mitchell has been moving through the courts for five years and the Tennessee Supreme Court has now issued a ruling in the case, a 4-1 decision that found Mitchell was guilty of disorderly conduct. (The opinion written by Justice Gary Wade is here.)

The photos above, showing a tank-like vehicle and heavily armed police, are from that hot day in June (mentioned previously on this blog here and here). There were snipers on the roof above the crowd as well. Obviously there was a great deal of fear and concern from police, who seemed to be expecting a very dangerous atmosphere at the rally.

Mitchell was first convicted, but an appeals court overturned that verdict and the case went to the State Supreme Court in a break from their usual business. Reporter Jamie Satterfield of the Knoxville News Sentinel has a story on the decision here.

The case centered over whether or not Mitchell's conduct was threatening and crossed a line protecting free speech. The court majority says yes. Mitchell was certainly using abusive racial insults towards the police, and police also wanted to bar Mitchell from carrying an American flag into the rally since it was on a large pole which they feared could be "used as a weapon".

A dissenting opinion from the Supreme Court by Justice Sharon Lee says Mitchell's conduct was not disorderly and that he was protected by the right of free speech. Some excerpts from her opinion:

"Anticipating a possible confrontation between pro-immigration and anti-immigration participants at the rally, the Hamblen County Sheriff’s Department assembled between eighty and ninety police officers from various police agencies in and around the rally site. The police presence included officers from the Hamblen County Sheriff’s Department, the Morristown Police Department, the Sevierville Emergency Rescue Squad, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Most of the officers were in uniform; some were in riot gear, many were in full body armor and carried loaded M-16 weapons; and others carried AK-47 weapons. Police officers were on the ground, snipers on rooftops, and a half-track tank was hidden in the bushes of the courthouse lawn."


"The videos depict a scene where Mr. Mitchell is agitated, but the police officers and bystanders appear undisturbed by Mr. Mitchell’s conduct. Indeed, not a single person testified that he or she felt threatened by Mr. Mitchell.

At this point, an order came across the radio from Officer Weisgarber, who was stationed next to the courthouse, to remove Mr. Mitchell. Officer Weisgarber never saw Mr. Mitchell until after his arrest."


"Although Mr. Mitchell’s conduct was rude and belligerent, the fatal flaw in the State’s case was its failure to establish that Mr. Mitchell’s conduct was violent or threatening."


"After considering the principles in these cases and the evidence in the record before us, I am convinced that the proof was not sufficient to sustain the conviction for disorderly conduct. In vociferously challenging the officers’ authority to deny him permission to enter the rally with his American flag, there is no doubt Mr. Mitchell was rude, loud, and belligerent. However, the entire verbal exchange between the numerous officers and Mr. Mitchell appears to have lasted less than 15 seconds. There was no proof that Mr. Mitchell made any threats of violence. There was no proof that any of the seven police officers at the entrance felt threatened at any time by Mr. Mitchell. There was no proof that Mr. Mitchell committed any act of violence toward any of the police officers or counseled others to do so. Although the State argues that Mr. Mitchell “shook the flag pole and poked Officer Wallen two or three times with the eagle attached to the end of the flag pole,” this argument is simply not supported by the videotapes that captured the entire encounter. Obviously, the jury’s role is to resolve conflicts in the proof; however, the State’s argument that Mr. Mitchell used his flag to poke Officer Wallen in a threatening or violent manner and that this conduct somehow took place outside of the video cameras’ view is sheer conjecture."


"Officers’ mere speculation as to what may have happened was not a basis to arrest Mr. Mitchell for boisterously expressing his views on a matter of public concern. Therefore, I would hold that Mr. Mitchell’s conduct was protected free speech under the First Amendment."

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