ACLU urges Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to veto attempt to criminalize Capitol protests

The American Civil Liberties Union is urging Gov. Bill Lee to veto a bill that would crack down on protesters, saying it would chill free speech by threatening people with “overly harsh criminal penalties” and mark “a giant leap in the wrong direction” on criminal justice reform.

For two months, a group of protesters has spent day and night occupying a space outside the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville. Demonstrators camping at War Memorial Plaza have reclaimed it as “the People’s Plaza” and demanded an audience with Lee to discuss defunding law enforcement and removing the bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Capitol.

Lee hasn’t met with the protesters.

Instead, he said he will sign into law a bill passed by the legislature during a special session Wednesday that would, among other things, make camping on state property not meant for camping a Class E felony.

If the bill becomes law, anyone who cooks, pitches a tent, sleeps or leaves personal belongings on state property from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. could face between one to six years in prison. Convicted felons in Tennessee lose the right to vote and carry a gun.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU’s Tennessee chapter, sent a letter to Lee on Friday skewering the bill as an attack on Tennesseans’ rights disguised as an attempt to protect first responders. The ACLU previously backed the People’s Plaza protesters last month, sending a letter to Lee that demanded state troopers stop arresting demonstrators and seizing their property unnecessarily. 

“Tennessee has a rich history of non-violent protest and civil disobedience and today we celebrate the men and women who engaged in civil disobedience in the streets and at lunchcounters during the late 1950s and 1960s,” the letter reads, in part. 

“Time and again, non-violent protests have been at the heart of moving our state and our nation forward. (Senate Bill) 8005 is a giant leap in the wrong direction, trampling on the rights of Tennesseans simply because some do not like the message or the fashion in which protesters are making their voices heard. Regardless of the message, non-violent protest is protected speech.”

In addition to changing unauthorized camping from a misdemeanor to a felony, the bill would create new offenses for assaulting first responders. Throwing human waste on a police officer, for example, would be classified as a Class A misdemeanor — meaning it would carry a less serious punishment than camping outside the Capitol.

The bill also would make it a felony to trespass on the property of a public official with the intent to harass and to block an emergency vehicle that is responding to an emergency. It would criminalize marking — even in a temporary way, such as with chalk — on government property, a provision that excludes only sidewalks.

The bill would impose mandatory minimum jail sentences for some crimes and require authorities, by default, to hold those charged but not convicted of certain protest-related offenses for at least 12 hours without bond. Such holds currently are used to keep people accused of domestic abuse behind bars so tensions at home don’t escalate.

The ACLU noted that Lee has repeatedly identified criminal justice reform as one of his priorities while in his office. This bill, the letter says, is not that.

“While your administration often speaks about sentencing reform, signing this bill would contradict those words and waste valuable taxpayer funds to severely criminalize dissent,” the letter states. “Requiring 12-hour holds upon arrest, putting in place mandatory minimums, and enhancing petty crimes to felony-level offenses will only hurt our communities, waste state dollars and send a message loud and clear that Tennessee is no place to exercise your constitutional rights if state or local government entities disagree with you.”

The ACLU further raised questions about whether the bill may have unintended consequences on people who aren’t involving in protests. The bill would make it a felony, for example, for a person experiencing homelessness to sleep on state property. And if a person were to try to stop a police officer from using excessive force, the letter says, the person could be charged with a felony under the bill.

A spokesperson for the ACLU’s Tennessee chapter told Knox News the organization’s legal team is still reviewing the bill.

Stewart Harris, a professor at Lincoln Memorial University’s law school in Knoxville who’s taught constitutional law for 15 years, said speech involving matters of great public concern is core political speech and “perhaps the most protected speech under the First Amendment.”

“When you have a government suppressing core political speech, that’s when courts take notice,” he said. “So I think this is a very dangerous path to be on for the Tennessee legislature.”

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