Tennessee protestors could face harsher punishments for blocking roadways. One bill, HB 513/SB 843, would raise the offense of obstructing traffic during demonstrations to a felony.
Opponents of the bill are concerned of the chilling effect this could have on the state’s freedom of assembly.
A lot of attention has been on the fact that the bill would grant immunity from prosecution to drivers who unintentionally injure or kill protestors illegally blocking their path, as long as they are “exercising due care”.
But the legislation also dictates that those protesters would face tougher criminal charges, including a fine of $3,000 and up to six years in prison.
Brandon Tucker, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s state chapter, says this legislation could dissuade Tennesseans from exercising their right to protest.
“For lawmakers to feel the urge and the need to impose life-altering punishment for something as frivolous as obstructing a sidewalk or a street, it’s a completely outsized response for something that should be welcome in the state of Tennessee.”
If convicted of the felony charge, protestors could be stripped of their right to vote — something that Tucker says will further discourage activism.
The measure continues a trend of punitive measures toward Tennessee protestors. Last summer, the state legislature passed a bill making it a felony to camp out on state property amid widespread demonstrations at the Capitol, including a multiweek sit-in on War Memorial Plaza.
Having obtained funding in Gov. Bill Lee’s final budget, the legislation is moving ahead in the state legislature’s final days of session.