Tennessee’s Republican governor quietly signed a bill earlier this week creating harsher punishments for protesters, including increased jail time and loss of voting rights.
Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill Thursday revising criminal laws related to peaceful protesting, after months of demonstrations in front of the state Capitol building in Nashville.
The bill, put forward by the state Senate, makes “camping” on state property a criminal offense. Violators would face Class E felony charges, a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 days in jail and restitution for any property damage.
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Offenders could face up to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000 for a Class E felony, the least serious felony in the state. Illegal camping on state property was previously a misdemeanor.
Tennesseans found guilty of a felony charge, no matter the classification, lose the right to vote. Class E felons are able to petition to have charges expunged after five years.
The state defines unauthorized camping as setting up a temporary structure, i.e. a tent, tarp or piece of furniture between 10 p.m.-7 a.m. in a non-designated camping area. People found sleeping, storing personal items, cooking, lighting a fire, and “digging or earth breaking” are in violation of the new law.
The bill also classifies aggravated rioting as a Class C felony, requiring a mandatory minimum of 90 days in jail, but offenders could face up to 15 years, and fines up to $10,000.
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These charges would result from assaulting a first responder, causing a riot or obstructing a highway.
American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee reportedly asked the governor to veto the bill earlier this month. It said it will monitor how the law is enforced and has urged Tennesseans “to get out and vote like their rights depend on it.”
“We are very disappointed in Governor Lee’s decision to sign this bill, which chills free speech, undermines criminal justice reform and fails to address the very issues of racial justice and police violence raised by the protesters who are being targeted,” ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said in a statement this week. “While the governor often speaks about sentencing reform, this bill contradicts those words and wastes valuable taxpayer funds to severely criminalize dissent.”
For months, activists have camped in front of the Capitol, demanding to meet with Lee. The governor has reportedly refused to meet with them.
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The law will go into effect on Oct. 1, and will only pertain to offenses occurring on and after that date.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.