Was justice served in ETSU gorilla-mask case?

Johnson City Press • Jul 22, 2019 at 7:30 AM

Local defense attorney Patrick Denton definitely knows how to play an audience. Of course, it’s an attorney’s job to be an advocate for his client, regardless of what a reprobate his client may or may not be.

That’s why he was able to tell jurors with a straight face last week not to assume the inherent racism his client displayed is how he feels now when considering the civil rights intimidation charges against Tristan Rettke from the former East Tennessee State University student’s disruption at a campus Black Lives Matter rally in 2016.

Denton’s client showed up barefoot, wearing a gorilla mask and dangling bananas from what some interpreted as nooses on a rope. He also carried a burlap sack adorned with a Confederate battle flag. A Johnson City Press reporter and others at the rally captured much of what happened on video.

“I’m just the gorilla, man … I’m here to support my people,” Rettke told our reporter from behind his mask.

No, jurors should not assume anything until they see the evidence, but anyone over the age of 10 knows ape likenesses have been used to degrade and diminish people of color throughout history. It’s a racially charged image.

Let’s call it what it was: Rettke’s appearance at ETSU was reprehensible, brattish behavior from an adult who should have known better.

But did it rise to the level of a crime? At the very least, what Rettke did was juvenile harassment using volatile imagery, but was he truly intimidating participants at the rally toward curbing their civil rights?

The free speech protections afforded by the 1st Amendment are by no means absolute. The old adage about yelling fire in a crowded theater applies. Defamation, inciting actions that would harm others, blackmail, inciting imminent lawless acts, perjury and other forms of speech are not necessarily protected, and even those are subject to court interpretation.

So did the jury get it right? Was Rettke free to thrust his ugly perceptions in the faces of the black students at the rally? Was he simply exercising his right to free speech in a public forum, just as the rally’s participants were? Or were his actions criminal? Was justice served?

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Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this question partially quoted Denton’s statement.

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