published Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Bradley County Tea Party says its rights abused

Mayor Tom Rowland stands in front of the shops of downtown Cleveland, Tenn.
Mayor Tom Rowland stands in front of the shops of downtown Cleveland, Tenn.
Photo by Jenna Walker /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Tea Party of Bradley County members are warning the Cleveland City Council not to interfere with their right to free speech.

On June 18, the City Council voted for a resolution supporting a city police investigation into the distribution of leaflets in South Cleveland. The anonymous leaflets, left on doors and porches, warned that a city renewal plan meant taking over about 300 homes in that area and tearing them down.

Alarmed people who contacted City Hall were told that was not true.

After the council's vote to find out who distributed the leaflets, tea party members came forward and admitted doing so.

Police Chief Wes Snyder sent a memo to the council, stating there were no criminal violations and that the tea party members' right to speak could not be restrained.

On Monday, attorney Stuart James, on behalf of the Tea Party of Bradley County, sent a warning letter to the council and announced he wants to address its members at their next meeting Monday.

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"As you know, political free speech is protected by the Tennessee and United States constitutions," James wrote in the letter. "Although free speech is not an absolute right, free speech is protected. Moreover, free speech is protected from retaliatory actions by governmental bodies, such as the City Council.

"Therefore, any resolution attempting to undermine those rights is in and of itself, constitutionally suspect. Moreover, the City Council may have exceeded its authority and may have violated the Constitution of the United States of America and the Tennessee Constitution attempting to pass a resolution designed to stop the exercise of free speech."

Donny Harwood, president of the Tea Party of Bradley County, said Wednesday the group is being proactive.

"That's a great portion of what we do, getting information to the public," he said. "We can let them trample on our right to free speech or we can take a stand."

Mayor Tom Rowland said Wednesday the city has no response, but James is welcome to speak to the council.

"We did receive the letter," he said. "There were some inaccuracies in it."

The county, Cleveland and Charleston hired a consultant to look at growth potential through 2035 and a batch of proposals came out of that study, but no final plan has been suggested or discussed.

There may be future opposition to the renewal plan, as well, James wrote in the letter.

"Any actions by the City Council to quash or quell free speech will be met with the appropriate response to enforce and protect the rights of individuals and organizations to exercise their free speech," the letter stated.

James asked the council to repeal the previous resolution and adopt instead a resolution calling for protection of free speech in Cleveland.

Rowland routinely invites anyone not on the council's meeting agenda to comment at the beginning of the official sessions. The council meets Monday at 1 p.m. for a work session and at 3 p.m. for its official voting session.

about Randall Higgins...

Randall Higgins covers news in Cleveland, Tenn., for the Times Free Press. He started work with the Chattanooga Times in 1977 and joined the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press when the Free Press and Times merged in 1999. Randall has covered Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Alabama. He now covers Cleveland and Bradley County and the neighboring region. Randall is a Cleveland native. He has bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University. His awards ...

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