Attorney will challenge state law in ETSU gorilla mask case

Becky Campbell • Jun 20, 2017 at 10:37 PM

The attorney for a former East Tennessee State University student charged with civil rights intimidation says the First Amendment protects his client’s actions and he will challenge the constitutionality of the state law under which he was charged.

Patrick Denton, attorney for 19-year-old Tristan Rettke, has been adamant that prosecutors erred in bringing the civil rights intimidation charge. In addition to that charge, Rettke was also indicted on charges of disorderly conduct and disruption of a meeting or procession.

Denton said during a hearing Tuesday he is working on a motion to challenge the statute used to charge Rettke, but said he’s digging deep into the First Amendment to ensure his client’s rights are not violated.

“This was a counter protest in a free-speech zone on campus,” Denton said after the hearing. “There’s no way that his free speech should have been criminalized. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to taint the jury pool.”

Rettke’s charges stem from a Sept. 28, 2016, incident when he showed up at a Black Lives Matter demonstration dressed in overalls and a gorilla mask while carrying bananas with string tied around them in a burlap bag with the Confederate flag on it.

The demonstration was held at Borchuck Plaza, outside Sherrod Library on the Johnson City campus, previously designated a free-speech zone. It’s supposed to be a location where students can freely express themselves without being harassed or intimidated. But several students participating in the demonstration said that’s exactly how they felt when the gorilla mask-clad man showed up — harassed and intimidated.

Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice told prosecutors they should give notice to the state attorney general’s office about Denton’s promised motion. Because the motion will challenge the constitutionality of state law, the attorney general’s office will handle it on behalf of the legislature.

Denton has said he fully intends to take the case to trial.

Since his arrest, Rettke has withdrawn from the university. He is free on bond while his case is pending.

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