Gov. Bill Lee says he will sign into law a measure further criminalizing peaceful protests. It was approved by the Tennessee legislature during a special session this week.
The bill was written to specifically target the protesters who have been on or near the capitol grounds for weeks. It makes unauthorized camping on state property, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., a low-level felony. Lee says he “would have proposed it differently” but feels it achieves his ultimate goal.
“We’ve seen lawlessness in the previous months here. We’ve seen it play out in a big way across the country. We don’t want that to be playing out again,” he says.
Protesters had already cleared the area by Thursday afternoon. Many of them have been arrested multiple times by state troopers and cited with criminal trespass, which is only a misdemeanor.
Now, if protesters attempt to camp overnight, law enforcement is first supposed to give a warning, and if protesters don’t leave, they can be charged with a felony at the officer’s discretion. A conviction could result in prison time and losing the right to vote.
Lee says he expects troopers, who are tasked with protecting the capitol, to use the new provision.
“I would advise law enforcement to follow the law,” he says. “The legislature has done what I asked them to do.”
The final version of HB8005 also includes other mandatory minimum sentences for rioting and hurting a police officer.
Gov. Lee has generally been a booster of lowering penalties in order to have people serving less time in prison. He proposed a package of bills earlier this year that were ultimately sidelined by the pandemic. He says he still intends to resume criminal justice reform in the future and that “one bill doesn’t constitute criminal justice reform.”