The Tennessee General Assembly passed a heavy-handed anti-protest bill on Aug. 12 during its three-day special session, aimed at demonstrators who camped out in an area in front of the state Capitol. After the vote, the demonstrators peacefully picked up their tents and left.
The next day, the Legislature sent the measure to Gov. Bill Lee for his signature. He promised to sign it.
Lee’s declarations on social media last week that Tennessee would oppose lawlessness contrast to the mostly peaceful demonstration that ensued for more than two months.
Yes, there were incidents of protesters blocking legislators’ cars and handcuffing themselves to a Capitol railing. But there are already laws to address these acts of civil disobedience.
There also were incidents of over-policing, including one in which a state trooper was accused of stripping the mask off a protester. He was fired Friday.
The legislation makes camping on state property a felony. That would put people away in prison for up to six years and take away their voting rights, potentially for life — — for peacefully pitching a tent and exercising their First Amendment rights.
Related: Tennessee anti-camping bill was rushed and sends chilling message | Plazas
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Moreover, this bill and the rhetoric surrounding it contradict Lee’s focus on criminal justice reform.
Whether Lee or most legislators agree with the protesters’ positions on the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust and ending systemic racism is irrelevant.
They have an obligation to uphold and sustain democracy, even when exercising those rights is messy.
It is worth reflecting on the Tennessee State Constitution to guide us:
Article I, Section 1. “That all power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their peace, safety, and happiness; for the advancement of those ends they have at all times, an unalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform, or abolish the government in such manner as they may think proper.”
Article I, Section 2. “That government being instituted for the common benefit, the doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power and oppression is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.”
We repeat, “oppression is absurd, slavish and destructive.”
This hastily crafted bill flies in the face of the people’s rights to confront their government. It’s a shame, and if it becomes law, it ought to be challenged in court or repealed by cooler heads in the 2021 regular legislative session.
This editorial reflects the views of the top editors of the USA TODAY Network Tennessee: The Tennessean, Knoxville News Sentinel, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Daily News Journal (Murfreesboro), Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle, Jackson Sun and Columbia Daily Herald. Direct any comments to Opinion and Engagement Director David Plazas at (615) 259-8063 or [email protected] Subscribe and support local journalism.