There once was a time when I thought about living in the State of Tennessee.   For anyone who has ever driven through there, this is an understandable consideration.  It is easily one of the more picturesque places available.  The state is also home to Graceland, the Grand Ole Opry, countless Civil War battlefields, Dollywood and the Great Smoky Mountains.

I’m fully aware that there are plenty of great things about the State of Tennessee, but that is not what I am choosing to write about here. Recently, I’ve come across a few head-scratchers courtesy of the Tennessee State Legislature.

John Scopes

Tennessee is the state that brought us the infamous Scopes Trial.  Granted, this was another time and many other states had laws against teaching evolution in public schools, but Tennessee is the state that actually tried to enforce it, thus creating a media circus that went on and on as Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan argued back and forth, in a courtroom, about where Cane got his wife from, a talking serpent in the Garden of Eden, and whether or not Eve was actually created from Adam’s rib. It is also worth noting that John Scopes WAS convicted by the jury in only nine minutes time for teaching evolution (the cornerstone of biology) in a science class.

So the topic I want to discuss here is how far has the State of Tennessee come since then? What types of laws are they trying to pass today? Are they practical, useful, and enforceable? No they are not.

A bill, sometimes called the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” has advanced in the State Senate.  The bill would prohibit teachers from discussing homosexuality or allowing discussion of the matter in the classroom.

Sponsored by Senator Stacey Campfield (R), who has previously and unsuccessfully pushed the measure for six years during service in the House, the bill would make it illegal for educators to discuss any sexual behavior apart from heterosexuality with students before they reach the 9th grade.  And if you are wondering, this bill does have teeth to it.  It calls for teachers who violate the bill to be jailed for up to thirty days.

According to a recent Gallup poll*, 70% of 18 to 34-year-olds believe same sex marriage should be legalized, while for the first time in the history of the poll, a majority, 53% of Americans are in support of legalizing gay marriage.  Yet, people like Senator Campfield seem to believe that avoiding the issue in public schools will be a great way of making the topic go away.  Or maybe the gays themselves will just disappear.  Or better yet, he can be like President Ahmadinejad of Iran and say, “We don’t have gays in Tennessee.”

There has been an enormous wave of backlash to this proposed law, mainly spearheaded by Star Trek celebrity George Takei, who is leading the “It’s Okay to be Takei” movement.  Simply put, he’s offering up his name as a substitute for the word gay.  (There’s a link to a Youtube video at the bottom that is rapidly nearing its one millionth view).

In the past, this same legislator has also proposed issuing death certificates to aborted fetuses and permitting students to carry guns on college campuses.

Will public backlash deter Senator Campfield?  Well, he doesn’t seem too open to public discussion, that is, unless you give him some sweet compensation. He recently refused to debate the issue with actor Del Shores unless Shores paid him a $1,000 retainer fee.

So the issue here is what would happen if this law actually went into effect? Would the State of Tennessee, the state that cast the deciding vote for the amendment that gave women the right to vote, be prepared to go through with Scopes Trial II because one of their teachers dared answer a question or allow a discussion about gay rights to take place in a Civics class? Would they really prosecute a teacher and put him or her on trial for stating why one should be tolerant of gay rights?

Would the enactment of such a law encourage more mistreatment of gays and lesbians by NOT allowing kids to talk about it in school? ‘Well, that must mean that it’s wrong because the state will not allow us to talk about it.’ Could a statute such as this actually encourage bullying?

This is a pretty severe restriction on one’s free speech. Oddly enough, Scope’s defense in his trial was centered on the fact that it WAS a violation of the 1st Amendment on the grounds of free speech and separation of church and state. The court ruled that, as a state employee, they COULD regulate and limit what he said in the classroom.

The second baffling act of the Tennessee State Legislature also involves free speech and their attempts to limit it.   It is an addition to a new Tennessee law that is an overboard attempt to stop bullying. Part of the act reads as follows:

(a) A person commits an offense who intentionally:

(4) Communicates with another person or transmits or displays an image in a manner in which there is a reasonable expectation that the image will be viewed by the victim by [by telephone, in writing or by electronic communication] without legitimate purpose:

(A) (i) With the malicious intent to frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress; or

(ii) In a manner the defendant knows, or reasonably should know, would frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress to a similarly situated person of reasonable sensibilities; and

(B) As the result of the communication, the person is frightened, intimidated or emotionally distressed.

This law applies to posting images on Facebook, personal Web sites, in emails, and in other places if the act “without legitimate purpose,” causes emotional distress, or if they intend to cause emotional distress or know or reasonably should know that their action will cause emotional distress to a similarly situated person of reasonable sensibilities.

So it is now illegal in Tennessee to post a picture of someone in an embarrassing situation unless a prosecutor, judge or jury decides otherwise.

It is also illegal to post an image intended to distress some political, religious, ethnic, or racial group and you can serve jail time for it. The picture does not have to be of the victim, only intended to cause stress to the victim, say if it is a cartoon of Mohammed, or a blasphemous joke about Jesus, or harsh cartoon insult about radical right-wing Republicans, hillbillies, rednecks, gun lovers, or whatever — as long as it would “cause emotional distress to a similarly situated person of reasonable sensibilities.”

Also, under this law, one can still be liable if the person “reasonably should know” that the actions would “frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress.” Tennessee would need to resurrect William Jennings Bryan to even be able to prove that one. It would be a nightmare to try and carry this statute out in a court of law. And who the heck wrote this ridiculous nonsense? Did some state legislator’s mother show his prom date a naked baby picture or something?

Does this law apply to newspapers and TV stations? Something uttered on a radio station?

I can honestly say that two things are perfectly clear. These laws are unconstitutional as well as unenforceable and the State of Tennessee has lost its collective mind for electing and reelecting such individuals to the state legislature.

Please feel free to chime in with your thoughts below.

Keith Ames