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A Cleveland, Tenn., businessman says city officials crossed a line when they tore down protest signs he posted outside his business Thursday during a visit by Gov. Bill Haslam.
"There needs to be a public apology," said Dan Rawls, owner of Cleveland Performance Center, for what he says is trespass and violation of his right to free speech. "I think they need to take a course in the Constitution to learn not only that you can't violate private property rights, you can't violate First Amendment rights."
But City Councilman George Poe said Rawls is the one who crossed the line by planting the handmade signs on city right of way near the South Cleveland Community Center, where Haslam announced $570,000 in grants for the center and the Mouse Creek greenway.
"The governor came to give us a half-million dollars, and I thought that was pretty nice," Poe said Friday. "We come out the door, and there's signs all over the place painted on cardboard boxes in orange spray paint. ... It was a pretty big embarrassment to us in the city," Poe said Friday.
Rawls planted signs in the grass near the street in front of his business to protest Haslam's support for the Common Core standards. Most states, including Tennessee, have adopted the K-12 education guidelines that Rawls calls a "federally run school system." "Shame on you Haslam," one read. A smaller sign next to it said, "Stop CC."
Poe said he went with City Manager Janice Casteel when she said the signs were on the public right of way. He said she called the police codes enforcement officer and began pulling up the signs.
Then, Poe said, "This big muscled-up guy, screaming, yelling, slinging his arms around," came out of Rawls' business and ordered him and Casteel off his property. Poe said he "thought he was going to give Janice a shove," so he used the police radio he carries to call for help.
Rawls said he ordered Casteel and Poe to get off his property but didn't in any way threaten them. Police showed up in force, but calm was restored quickly.
From photos, it's hard to tell whether the signs are in the 6-foot city right of way. The signs were on the ground before the codes enforcement officer arrived, Poe and Rawls agreed.
Even if the signs were on the right of way, Rawls questioned where Casteel gets authority to enforce City code, which is a police function.
"I'm so tired of this kind of stuff. We seem to have one law here for average citizens and another law for politicians and police officers," Rawls said.
He brought up a 2009 incident when Poe unloaded a full clip from a .380-caliber automatic at a car carrying a suspected burglar in a neighborhood. Poe was cited for aggravated assault and reckless endangerment, but a Bradley County grand jury declined to indict him.
"If you're a city councilman, you're allowed to shoot at them. If it was me, I'd be in jail for that," Rawls said.
Casteel could not be reached for comment Friday. Neither could Mayor Tom Rowland or Cleveland's two codes enforcement officers.
Poe said as city manager, Casteel "absolutely" had authority to take the signs down. He said Rawls is a gadfly who comes to all the council meetings and is "against everything any government agency does -- city, county, state or federal."
County Commissioner Jeff Yarber said Friday he heard about the fracas and contacted Rawls, whose home and business are in his district.
Yarber wasn't there and wouldn't speculate about the rights and wrongs. But he supported Rawls' right to speak his mind.
"Our soldiers have died to give us that freedom," Yarber said. "Whatever Dan's message, unless that's a threat or a violation, that's a message he has a right to portray."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfree press.com or 424-757-6416.
Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...