Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, charged into a passionate defense of his intent on a “cyber-bullying” law he sponsored this year as part of a broad town hall discussion Thursday night in Murfreesboro.
The meeting at a restaurant with about 100 people became an elaborate debriefing of five Republican legislators on bills that passed in the General Assembly this year, the histories behind some of those bills and some of the aftershocks that continue to rumble on some of the most controversial legislation.
Ketron found himself the focus of a lot of it, mostly because of his efforts on the anti-bullying law and the “material support” bill that began on a highly controversial note because of its early inclusion of references to Sharia law, which was ultimately yanked from the legislation before it passed.
Debate was scarce at Thursday’s event, since the lawmakers were basically preaching to the choir, a setting organized by the Rutherford County Republican Party, the 9.12 Project of Rutherford County and the Rutherford County Tea Party. Ketron was joined by Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, and Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale.
The gathering played out as a self-congratulatory victory lap, which has become common in Republican crowds as the party faithful celebrates newfound GOP control of Capitol Hill.
“There was no attempt to take away free speech. There’s not a vein or a thread in any of us that wants to do anything to take away free speech. We’re Republicans. Good gosh. That’s not the issue,” Ketron said.
“I disagree at this point with those comments made that it takes away free speech, and I believe the General Assembly felt the same way, and that’s why it was passed in a bipartisan manner.”
He said Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, brought the bill to him seeking a Senate sponsor. Ketron said the legislation was vetted by legislative staff attorneys.
“We asked them, ‘Does this take away free speech?’ We were told that it doesn’t,” he said. “And I stand to be corrected. If it does, we’ll change it, because that is not the intent. The intent was to eliminate these kids from destroying other kids’ lives. That’s why we brought the bill.”
He noted that the bill was debated in committees before it went to the House and Senate floors, and he said laws have long been on the books against libel, slander and defamation of character and that they simply took those same codes and tried to adapt the principle to modern social media.
Ketron said a case would still have to be taken up by a prosecutor and that the harm would have to be intentional to be a crime. Nevertheless, Ketron said he has asked for an attorney general’s opinion on whether it violates free speech.
The cyber-bullying law says those convicted of using electronic devices to harass anyone must serve up to 30 hours of community service for transmitting an offensive image where malicious intent is involved by a juvenile to frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress to the victim. The bipartisan-backed measure has been criticized and ridiculed nationally for the free-speech issue.
When the subject turned to Ketron’s anti-terrorism bill, SB1028, he was asked who lobbied him to take the word “Sharia’ from the bill. “There was not a group that lobbied me nor House Speaker Pro Tempore (Judd) Matheny to remove the word ‘Sharia,’” Ketron responded.
Ketron said the bill was first presented to him by the Eagle Forum with the premise that it would deal with homegrown terrorism. Ketron then recounted the story of Memphian Carlos Bledsoe, who Ketron said went to Nashville, then Yemen, became radicalized and went to Arkansas and killed an American soldier. He said he felt it was best to share a controversial video on the issue with his colleagues, a move that garnered criticism from his hometown newspaper.
Ketron brought in Commissioner of Safety Bill Gibbons, as well as officials from Homeland Security and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and Ketron said it was Gibbons’ idea to roll the bill into the material support bill already in the law passed by the Legislature in 2002 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Gibbons said Ketron might want to look at taking it to a Class A felony, Ketron said.
“That’s exactly what I did,” Ketron said.
“I’m here to tell you, I feel it was divine intervention. I believe it was brought for a purpose and a reason, to protect the citizens of our state and I hope the other states will pick up on the same language and pass the bill next year.”
Ketron referred to Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis.
“Ophelia Ford was totally against the bill. She looked at that tape, for whatever reason, and she voted for the bill, and before she voted she said, ‘Senator, that’s pretty scary, what’s happening in my city.’ She’s going to be meeting with the officials in Shelby County over the next two or three weeks,” Ketron said.
Ketron said he and Speaker Pro Tempore Matheny, R-Tullahoma, met with Muslims from Tullahoma, Rutherford County and Davidson County. He said he knew the word “Sharia” would have to come out of the bill because it simply wouldn’t pass without removing it.
“You’ve got to get the votes,” he said.
Carr burst into a carpe diem speech, explaining how the party in power had seized the moment of running state government.
“When we started the session, we knew we were going to try to get a lot done, because you never know how much time you have. You really don’t,” Carr said. “So we wanted to seize the day, and you people said, ‘We want you do it now. We don’t want to wait anymore. We’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting, and we’re tired of waiting. We want it now.’
“We did more in less time than I ever remember being a citizen of Tennessee and following politics. Not only did we do more in this session of the 107th General Assembly, we did it in record time, getting out early, saving the taxpayers money, which proves the Republicans are more productive and more efficient than the Democrats.”
It took long hours, Carr said.
“At the very end, we were working 14-, 16- and 18-hour days. As Rick and Mike now know, it’s rather manic the last two weeks, but that’s just the nature of the beast.
“What we’re trying to do is create good laws that are efficient to a community with the conservative principles and ideals that we all represent, because you sent us there.”
Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, was not part of the program but showed up and was given a few minutes to speak. He thanked people for their support in his victory in his special election. Roberts replaced former Sen. Diane Black, who was elected to Congress last November.