A bill that would increase the penalties against protesting on state property is moving through the Tennessee General Assembly.
The measure (HB8005/SB8005) is backed by Gov. Bill Lee. But, a provision in it has received pushback even from members of the Republican Party.
Overall the GOP-led legislature is supportive of the measure. Supporters say it is meant to protect law enforcement.
But, in the original bill, the state’s attorney general would have the power to prosecute cases related to vandalism or injury to a police officer — even if the local prosecutor decides not to.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, told WPLN News they have heard from the district attorneys across the state “that had some issues.” He expects that provision to be taken out of the bill now.
The Tennessee District Attorney’s General Conference, which represents prosecutors, did not respond to a request for comment.
The push by Gov. Lee is rare move since the state attorney general does not tend to overrule local decisions by prosecutors. He told reporters he is not sure what’s going to be in the final version of the measure. But, he said a new law is necessary.
“We need to protect the peaceful assembly that it is allowed through the First Amendment,” Lee said. “But, at the same time, protect against lawlessness and the destruction of property.”
The bill would also add mandatory minimum sentences for rioting and would change the definition of “camping” in state law. That’s in response to the ongoing overnight protests in front of the capitol.
Justin Jones, who is a well-known activist in the state and who has been leading the protests, said this will criminalize the right to peacefully assemble.
“To have this bill that is targeting directly what is happening here,” Jones said. “It is kind of like a wave of anti-democracy.”
Jones said the measure would have implications on people experiencing homelessness in Tennessee.