Gov. Bill Lee has signed a new law that makes it a felony to camp on state property, even though he’s said the final legislation wasn’t quite what he’d had in mind.
The anti-protest bill went into effect Thursday. It means people who hold overnight sit-ins on public property, like the state Capitol, face up to six years in prison and loss of their voting rights. It also creates mandatory minimum sentences for assaulting a first responder.
The measure (HB 8005/SB 8005) was filed in response to a two-month protest outside the Capitol. Demonstrators occupied the public plaza across the street to protest racial injustice, including a bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest inside the Capitol, and said they would not leave until Lee met with them.
One of the demonstrators was Madison Weber. She was charged with another felony, vandalism, for writing with sidewalk chalk on state property in July.
“As a teacher and someone who definitely uses art supplies, I know that all it takes to remove chalk is, you know, a glass of water and a rag or a paper towel,” she said while protesting outside the Capitol during the final vote last week.
“What they’re doing is trying to inhibit our First Amendment rights and prevent us from using those.”
Lee told reporters last week that he “would have proposed it differently,” but that the bill ultimately accomplished what he’d asked lawmakers to do: punish “lawlessness.” He cited few local examples to support the legislation.
City Hall and a few businesses on Lower Broadway were damaged during demonstrations in late May. And several people have already been arrested on both local and federal charges, including arson.
But recent protests in downtown Nashville have been mostly peaceful.
Teens4Equality, the group that brought 10,000 protesters to the streets of downtown Nashville in June, are holding another demonstration this weekend — this time, in response to the anti-protesting law.
“[W]e will lose everything we worked for,” the organization wrote in an Instagram post advertising the event. “[W]e need to show the government that there’s power to the people.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.