Tennessee county ready to confiscate reporter cellphones, laptops as ‘weapons’ 

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A citizen entering Lawrence County, Tenn., courthouse goes through a new screening process. Cell phones and other standard equipment of media are confiscated. (Photo Lawrence County sheriff's department via Facebook)

A citizen entering Lawrence County, Tenn., courthouse goes through a new screening process. Cell phones and other standard equipment of media are confiscated. (Photo Lawrence County sheriff’s department via Facebook)

The brittleness of the state is evident in its precautions for the “safety” of its facilities and employees. Across the country paramilitary organizations engaged by cities and counties raise austere and terrible walls to protect themselves from the unknown.

Lawrence County, Tenn., operates a ramshackle courthouse built in 1974 on West Gaines Street for a county with a population just under 40,000.

By David Tulis

Until now people have been free to come and go in the courthouse, its lobbies and courtrooms. As of April 6, “in light of growing threats around the nation,” the people are under a strict weapons ban that includes wireless phones and laptop computers — a ban that has the added benefit of stifling reporters at the Lawrence County Advocate newspaper and any other media outlet.

The ban affects “cameras or other recording devices, *** radio or handsets, *** radios/headsets, *** electronic devices, *** cell phones tools, *** cordlike objects.”

These items are mixed in helter-skelter with other objects that affect officers’ personal safety, such as guns, nail clippers or files, scissors, Mace, baseball bats, brass knuckles and the like.

A circular leads off with the following: “The following items are NOT PERMITTED inside of the Lawrence County Courthouse. If you have any of these items in your possession, you must take them to your vehicle before you enter the Courthouse. Officers will not hold them for you. Any items collected WILL NOT be returned.” A footnote says “Persons found in violation may be prosecuted pursuant to TCA 39-17-1359.”

Iffy legal basis

The theft of media devices such as laptops and smart phones keeps reporters to 19th century media equipment such as pencils, pens, notepads and notebooks.

“The security enhancements at the courthouse are part of a security initiative between the county commission and the Sheriff’s Department that was put into place last year. Officials say that the new measures are designed to protect those visiting the courthouse as well as those who work there on a daily basis.”

Read about how a Lawrence County judge railroads an innocent and free man for exercising his constitutional rights

But the Tennessee Code provision is for weapons only. “It is an offense to possess a weapon in a building or on property that is properly posted in accordance with this section,” the chapter reads.

Except as provided in § 39-17-1313, an individual, corporation, business entity or local, state or federal government entity or agent thereof is authorized to prohibit the possession of weapons by any person who is at a meeting conducted by, or on property owned, operated, or managed or under the control of the individual, corporation, business entity or government entity.

Not only does the Lawrence County cellphone ban appear outside the scope of statutory grammar, it seems to run against basic English grammar, as well. “The security enhancements include the use of walk-thru magnetometers and x-ray machines in which all belongings must be ran through before entrance.”

Civil libertarian upset

“When have cell phones posed a serious threat to people?” asks Jay Hirsch, a Lawrence County criminal court defendant in December who ministers to the elderly in several local nursing homes. “They don’t want anybody to have a means of communicating. The more that we get toward a totalitarian state, where it’s pretty obvious, they don’t want people to communicate back and forth. You as a member of the press have a right to go in there, to go out into the hallway to dictate something or to call back to your office or to a journalist or whatever. This is suppressing a bunch of rights, freedom of speech and so forth.”

“What if it’s a day when there’s a big trial going on and there’s no parking so you’ve got to walk blocks? Maybe it’s a pouring down rain — to make a phone call. This is just getting absurd. I’m not blaming the sheriff. He’s just doing what he’s told to do. The thing is, sheriffs don’t think for themselves anymore. They are puppets. They do whatever they’re told to do that’s politically correct. If I were a sheriff, I would have some constitutional attorneys really scrutinize this thing and I would publish my opinions that I am not going to enforce this.”

Rule softened; commissioner says ‘overreach’

Commissioner Scott Franks objects to the strictures. “There was no vote by the commission on that.” He first heard about the ban on Facebook. “My first question about that was like yours: Who made that decision?”

He says the rules were modified a few days later, on April 14.

“It sounded to me like an overreach  by someone who probably didn’t have the authority to do that.” No other courts in the state have such drastic restrictions.

The magnometers had been bought several years ago, but only now are coming into service, Mr. Franks said. He described the ban as administrative and not something that was determined by the political body to require detailed management. The sheriff is Jimmy Brown.

The newspaper had a minimal story about the magnometers and the ban against the media’s latest equipment. Editor Elizabeth Blackstone could not be reached for comment.

Remarks on the sheriff’s Facebook page seem favorable or neutral. Said Ashley Dewitt from Etheridge: “I think this is wonderful! Anything to ensure extra safety. People need to quit bitching so much about the damn phone, it’s not going to hurt you going without it for a few hours. OK, what if a situation was to arise? If your phone is turned off, like it’s supposed to be, you would never even know. 99% of the time it’s not a true emergency.”

The sheriff’s department says the policy is “commonsense” and that a landline in the lobby lets people dial outside. What if someone needs to use a phone? “Common sense accommodations can be made for such circumstances,” the department says. “Just explain the situation to a court officer and they can help.”

“I know absolutely nothing” about how the rules came to be, says county commissioner Aaron Story, who runs a marine business. “If we did, to be honest with you, I’ve blocked it out of my mind, because we’ve had a lot of other things going on in Lawrence County. I’d have to go back and read my notes and see.”

Mr. Story is generous with his allowance of judges’ authority. “In my opinion,  I’m not going to rebut what a judge says.”

For the county to commit to a draconian rule, loosen it but apparently retain the strict wording of the public notice allows for selective enforcement against outside journalists and others not in favor with the judges or the administration.

Commissioner Delano Benefield refused to comment. No one from an area radio station, WLX, could be reached for comment.

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