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Critics Say Anti-Terrorism Bill Went from Bad to Worse to Much, Much Better

The Legislature spent months flirting with ideas for broadening the power of the state to designate groups and individuals as suspected terrorist and punish people who provide them with “material support.”

But in the final days of the session, lawmakers voted simply to toughen existing penalties in the law after dropping provisions that drew global attention and allegations that Tennessee planned to target people based on their religion.

The issue galvanized Tennessee’s Muslim community, with so many supporters and practitioners of Islam and defenders of “Sharia Law” descending on Legislative Plaza that meetings at times had to be broadcast in multiple overflow-rooms — and many still, for lack of available seating, were left sitting on the floors to watch closed-circuit monitors.

Proponents say they’re happy with the final form of the bill, which awaits the governor’s signature, while Muslim activists, civil libertarians and other critics are breathing easier with many of the most worrisome elements of the bill scrapped — including specific mention of “Sharia Law” and dramatic expansion of the government’s power to designate people as terrorists and to punish those who in any way support them.

“It’s a sigh of relief knowing that the most controversial and most dangerous portions of the bill ultimately came out,” said activist Remziya Suleyman, policy coordinator for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, which opposed the bill.

Under the bill that passed, material support of terrorists would bring the same punishment as manslaughter, sexual crimes, burglary and drug crimes — a 15- to 60-year jail sentence and up to a $50,000 fine. The crime would be a Class A felony, more serious than the current Class B designation, punishable with eight to 30 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. The more serious punishment would cost an average of $369,000 per inmate.

The plan is less far-reaching than what Sen. Bill Ketron originally proposed, but the Murfreesboro Republican said he’s satisfied with the final product.

Wrote Ketron in his hometown newspaper at the conclusion of the session last month:

There is no prosperity in Tennessee without security. Despite the best efforts of many to thwart legislation to strengthen our laws against homegrown terrorism, we succeeded in passing an anti-terrorism bill, which I sponsored, that updates Tennessee’s Terrorism Prevention Act that was passed shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. There has been much misinformation published regarding this bill. The “Material Support to Designated Entities Act of 2011” simply makes the provision of “material support” a Class A felony and helps to close the prevention gap left by the 2002 statute. This will help give our local law enforcement agencies the tools they need to prevent homegrown terrorism.

The Refugee Rights Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, and the Islamic Center of Nashville were among those that teamed up to fight the earlier versions of the bill.

“It was not just to protect our citizens. It was very clear it was targeting the Muslims,” Mohamed Ahmed, an imam at the center, told TNReport. “Is there anyone proposing a bill saying we’re going to damn the Jewish law? Of course not.”

“The bill as first drafted was very troubling, mean-spirited and ripe with constitutional problems,” said Hedi Weinberg, executive director of the state’s ACLU chapter. “The bill that passed essentially was gutted.”

In addition to prompting outrage in the Muslim community, Ketron’s plan hit snags with vocal members of his own party who refused to go along with it. First, because it seemed to single out a religious minority, then later because they felt it gave the governor and the attorney general too much power — outside the constitutionally established realms of due process in criminal court — in allowing them to ID individuals and groups as potential terrorists.

Among them was Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield, who called the bill a “Patriot Act Part Two for Tennessee.”

“I felt it could have led to targeting of groups that may not be guilty, but only unpopular at this time,” Campfield later said on the Senate floor. “As they come out for Muslims today, they could come out for the Tea Party tomorrow or the Republicans the next day or the Democrats the day after that.”

Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said the bill, prior to being dramatically reined-in, had disturbing “Big Brother” implications. Lundberg quietly promised he’d loudly oppose the bill on the House floor if the sponsors tried to run a version that he believed would legitimize the violation of people’s rights.

They didn’t. The next time the bill appeared before the Legislature, it had been scrubbed down to a version most all could support — or at least no longer passionately oppose.

“It looks decent,” said Ahmed who originally planned on challenging the earlier versions through the legal system had they passed but has since dropped that idea. “Don’t forget the original intent of the bill. It was not just to protect our citizens. It was very clear it was targeting the Muslims.”

Lundberg called the evolution of the bill “frankly, a pretty ugly process.”

“My concerns before were, were we targeting religion? Number two, then, we became ‘Big Brother,’ and we gave incredible power to a couple of people in this state,” Lundberg said on the floor before the vote. “This takes it back.”

Although a majority of Democrats opposed earlier versions of the bill, they aren’t taking credit for it’s paired down final version — it was the Republicans policing themselves, said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner.

“I think they were trying to play to a certain segment of their party and I think that it might have backfired on them,” he told reporters.

Indeed, once the “Sharia Law” aspects of the bill disappeared, some Democrats began to warm to the measure. Sen. Tim Barnes and Reps. Eddie Bass and Gary Moore voted for what Lundberg described as the “Big Brother” version in their respective chambers’ judiciary committees.

Sen. Barnes, D-Adams, remarked that if from the outset the measure had been dubbed the “Timothy McVeigh Bill,” rather than the “Sharia Bill,” not nearly so much outrage would likely have ensued.

Campfield, who unlike Barnes voted against Ketron’s bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, later noted that the debate brought to light the “weird divide” among tea-party conservatives.

“You had the people who didn’t want a whole bunch of government intrusion sort of competing against people who are strong on national security. A lot of times those are the same people,” Campfield told TNReport. “It was sort of a weird split that was going on at the time, but I think both sides are happy with what came out.”

The final version was hashed out behind closed doors between bill sponsors and high-level administrators in the Department of Safety and Office of Homeland Security. They stripped down the bill, deleting provisions that would have let the governor and attorney general designate possible terrorists and deny the accused the right to fight the classification before an administrative law judge.

They agreed to give the existing law more teeth and allowed for local district attorneys to report suspicions directly to the Department of State, which handles terrorist designations, instead of reporting to the FBI.

“We are pleased with the final version, which enhances the existing state penalty for groups or individuals who support terrorist organizations,” Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons said in an emailed statement.

“I like where the bill ended, quite frankly,” Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters. “I wasn’t quite sure why the governor and the attorney general had those roles in terms of whether that was appropriate.”

Still, some Democratic lawmakers held out, saying they still felt the measure got off on the wrong foot and they ultimately wanted no part of it in any way, shape or form.

“I am very concerned of the fact that we are demonizing certain people or putting a stigma on certain people because of their religion,” said Sen. Beverly Marrero, a Memphis Democrat who voted against the bill. “I believe so strongly that America is a place where people came for freedom of religion, I really want to speak up for people who feel like they are being prosecuted because of their religious beliefs.”

Also voting “No” in the Senate were Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis and Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, the Tennessee General Assembly’s longest serving member.

The measure passed overwhelmingly in both chambers, on a 26-3 vote in the Senate and 76-16 in the House. No Republicans in either chamber opposed the final version. Haslam is expected to sign the bill.

Andrea Zelinski is a staff writer for TNReport.com and can be reached at 615-489-7131 or andreazelinski@tnreport.com. TNReport is a not-for-profit news service supported by readers like you.

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Press Releases

ACLU: Fight Racal, Ethnic Profiling Bills

Press Release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee; May 16, 2011:

Because Freedom Can’t Protect Itself

This week the Tennessee Legislature will be voting on two bills that encourage racial and ethnic profiling: our very own Arizona-style copycat bill and the anti-Muslim bill. Both bills make Tennessee into a place where individuals and organizations are targeted for harassment by the government based on ethnicity, culture, and appearance.

Urge your legislators to stand up for fair treatment by voting against both the Arizona-copycat racial profiling bill and the anti-Muslim bill.

Stop Tennessee from Becoming Arizona

HB 1380/SB 0780 requires all law enforcement to question the immigration status of any person they stop, regardless of whether the person is actually charged with breaking a law. The bill implies that police will be trained to ask people for their “papers” based on an undefined “reasonable suspicion” that they are in this country unlawfully. The criteria for assessing such a suspicion will inevitably be accent, attire, hair, jewelry or skin color.

The Attorney General recently issued an opinion stating that certain aspects of this bill are unconstitutional. Furthermore, economically, this bill will really hurt Tennessee. In addition to the loss of revenue from depressed tourism and economic development, as seen in Arizona, the bill’s fiscal note increases state and local expenditures by nearly $5 million in the first year alone.

Let your representatives know that they should stop wasting money to create a police state based on unconstitutional racial profiling.

Oppose Harassment of Tennessee’s Muslim Community

HB1353/SB1028 is a loosely-worded bill that accomplishes little of its stated intent of fighting terrorism and instead leaves Muslims feeling targeted and harassed for practicing their religion. Even with amendments that remove specific references to Islam, the bill’s original wording casts a pall over any claim that it is not intended to target a specific group of Tennesseans.

The amended bill still raises serious First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment concerns with its vague definitions and its lack of due process for designated organizations. Furthermore, the federal government already has ample authority to identify and designate terrorist groups, freeze their assets, and prohibit individuals from providing support to those groups.

Let your legislators know that you oppose the unnecessary profiling of religious minorities.

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Press Releases

ACLU: Terrorism Bill Would Threaten Religious Freedom

Press Release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee; April 11, 2011:

A bill that grossly mischaracterizes an entire religious belief system–Islam–under the guise of combating terrorism will be taken up in both Senate and House committee this week.
SB 1028/HB 1353 would give the Tennessee Attorney General extraordinary discretion to designate organizations as “sharia organizations” if they are involved in “acts of terrorism” without notice, probable cause, or a meaningful opportunity to defend themselves.  The bill uses a definition of terrorism so broad that even peaceful groups engaging in non-violent demonstrations could potentially be branded as terrorists.

Tell lawmakers that America is a nation that embraces freedom of religion, fairness and tolerance.

While the sponsors say they plan to amend the bill to strip any language that targets Muslims specifically, its clear original intent will cause lingering fears in the Muslim community that the government will harass and target them for practicing their faith.

The bill is also completely unnecessary—the federal government already has ample authority to identify and designate terrorist groups, freeze their assets, and prohibit individuals from providing support to those groups.

Even if amended, this bill still raises serious First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment concerns with its vague definitions and its lack of due process for designated organizations.

Categories
Press Releases

MTSU Poll: Tennesseans Don’t Like Teacher Tenure; Split on Eliminating Collective Bargaining; Favor Wine in Grocery Stores

Press Release from the Middle Tennessee State University Survey Group, March 2, 2011:

Obama would lose to a Republican opponent, but his low approval rating has stabilized

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Tennesseans take a dim view of teacher tenure but show no consensus on whether to do away with collective bargaining power for teacher unions, the latest MTSU Poll finds.

Fifty-four percent of state residents choose the statement, “Tenure makes it hard to get rid of bad teachers” as most representative of their viewpoint, while 29 percent choose the alternative statement, “Tenure protects good teachers from being fired without just cause” as most indicative of what they think. Sixteen percent say they don’t know, and the rest decline to answer.

Meanwhile, 37 percent of Tennesseans favor “eliminating the ability of teacher unions in Tennessee to negotiate with local boards of education about teacher salaries, benefits and other employment issues.” But a statistically equivalent 41 percent oppose such a move, and a substantial 22 percent are undecided.

“Compared to public opinion about teacher tenure, public opinion about collective bargaining for teacher unions seem to be still taking shape in Tennessee,” said Dr. Ken Blake, director of the MTSU Poll. “The people most likely to have any opinion at all on the collective bargaining issue are also, based on other measures in the poll, the ones most likely to be politically active and politically knowledgeable. They probably are creating a framework for the debate and soon will start contending with each other for the support of those who are undecided.”

Conducted Feb. 14 – 26, 2011 by Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Mass Communication, the telephone poll of 589 Tennessee adults chosen at random from across the state has an error margin of plus or minus four percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. Full results are available on the poll’s website, www.mtsusurveygroup.org.

The poll also finds President Obama currently trailing whoever the Republican 2012 presidential nominee might be. Thirty-one percent of Tennesseans say they would vote for Obama if the election were held today, but a 48 percent plurality say they would vote instead for “his Republican opponent.” 14 percent say that they don’t know who they would vote for at this time, and 6 percent volunteer that they would vote for neither candidate.

The downward slide in Obama’s approval rating among Tennesseans seems to have leveled off, though, according to Dr. Jason Reineke, associate director of the MTSU Poll.

“The president’s approval rating stands at 39 percent in Tennessee, a possible uptick from his 35 percent approval rating in our Fall 2010 poll,” Reineke said. “But, of course, he’s still down quite a bit compared to his 53 percent approval rating in the Spring 2009 MTSU Poll.”

In other findings, three in four Tennesseans considers illegal immigration a “somewhat” or “very” serious problem, and a 42 percent plurality describe as “about right” the new Arizona immigration law’s requirement that police making a stop, detention, or arrest must attempt to determine the person’s immigration status if police suspect the person is not lawfully present in the country. Another 25 percent say such a law “doesn’t go far enough,” and 28 percent say it “goes too far.”

Additionally, 55 percent characterize as “about right” the Arizona law’s requirement that people produce documents proving their immigration status if asked by police. Twenty-three percent say that aspect of the law doesn’t go far enough, and 17 percent say it goes too far.

Meanwhile, closing the Tennessee’s projected budget gap could prove politically difficult for state lawmakers.

A 52-percent majority of state residents think dealing with the budget gap will require either cutting important services (16 percent), raising state taxes (6 percent) or both (30 percent). Despite these attitudes, though, Tennesseans show little support for cuts to any of five of the state’s largest general fund budget categories. Only 25 percent of state residents favor cuts to TennCare, 14 percent favor cuts to K-12 education, 24 percent favor cuts to higher education, and 17 percent favor cuts to children’s services. Cuts to a fifth major budget category, prisons and correctional facilities, drew the most support (44 percent), but the figure is still well below a majority.

Asked about gun regulation, Tennesseans divide essentially evenly on whether laws governing the sale of guns should be kept at their current levels (43 percent) or made more strict (41 percent). Similarly, 45 percent of Tennesseans say they would support a nationwide law banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips, defined in the poll question as those that hold more than 10 bullets. But a statistically equivalent 42 percent say they would oppose such a law.

In still other poll findings:

  • Sixty-nine percent of Tennesseans favor letting food stores sell wine.
  • A 50 percent plurality think Congress should repeal the health care law.
  • Support remains high for the religious rights of Muslims.
  • Tennesseans think neither President Obama nor Congressional Republicans are doing enough to cooperate with each other.
  • More Tennesseans approve than disapprove of new governor, legislature, but many are undecided.

For over a decade, the Survey Group at MTSU has been providing independent, non-partisan and unbiased public opinion data regarding major social, political, and ethical issues affecting Tennessee. The poll began in 1998 as a measure of public opinion in the 39 counties comprising Middle Tennessee and began measuring public opinion statewide in 2001. Learn more and view the full report at www.mtsusurveygroup.org.