TN Governor Signs Bill Enhancing Penalties For Lawless Protesters

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has signed a bill that will levy enhanced penalties for protestors who break laws during demonstrations.

The media at large is reporting that this is an attack on the freedom of speech, a violation of civil rights by criminalizing dissent and is a severe overstepping of government power.

However, there is nothing in the bill that quashes peaceful, law-abiding protests or demonstrations.

The new law stipulates that people who illegally camp on state property will face a Class E felony that is punishable by up to six years in prison.  Those found guilty of a felony in Tennessee lose the right to vote. 

Voting is a right lost by anyone convicted of a felony in Tennessee, not just those associated with protesting.   

The new law includes a mandatory 45-day sentence for aggravated rioting.  The law also raises the fine for hindering highway access to emergency vehicles and heightens the punishment for aggravated assault against a first responder to a Class C felony.

On June 12th, Governor Lee issued this statement regarding protests.

“We encourage Tennesseans to exercise their First Amendment rights and have seen many examples of peaceful protests across our state in recent weeks. As demonstrations continue, we will continue to protect Tennesseans’ right to peaceful assembly, while also reassuring citizens that lawlessness, autonomous zones, and violence will not be tolerated.  Further, Tennessee law expressly prohibits camping on state property not expressly designated as a campground area, and that law will be enforced.”

Unfortunately, Lee’s statement in June was not enough to convince protestors to keep their behavior peaceful and operating within confines of the law.

Lee’s decision comes after nine weeks of sustained protests outside the capitol with illegal camping on capitol grounds.  In addition, fires were set to a historic Nashville courthouse, businesses were broken into, and a great deal of vandalism and vehicle damage has occurred during and adjacent to protests.

In the United States, the right to freedom of speech and to peacefully protest is protected by the Constitution.  The operative word here is “peaceful”.  There is no special protection given by the Constitution to those who break established laws during protests. 

Further, it is well within the rights of the government to regulate the time, place and manner in which a protest is conducted.  This standard was upheld by a 1989 Supreme Court Decision (Ward v. Rock Against Racism). 

The Court also has held that requiring a permit for a peaceful protest in advance is constitutional, as are additional requirements for assemblies conducted near major public events. For instance, a city may require protest organizers to provide details about how the protest will be conducted. Having the right to express one’s concerns and sometimes outrage without fear of being silenced is one of the cornerstones of a successful democracy.  However, cities and other jurisdictions have a duty to maintain public order and safety which is just as much a part of the American way of life as is the freedom of speech.

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