Tennessee governor signs bill increasing punishments for certain protests

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) quietly signed a bill into law ramping up punishments for certain kinds of protests, including losing the right to vote.

The GOP-controlled state General Assembly passed the measure last week during a three-day special legislative session and was signed without an announcement earlier this week.

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

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The new law also slaps a mandatory 45-day sentence for aggravated rioting, boosts the fine for blocking highway access to emergency vehicles and enhances the punishment for aggravated assault against a first responder to a Class C felony. 

The leader of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee told The Associated Press, which was the first to report on the signing of the bill, that it would be observing enforcement of the law.

“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. “While the governor often speaks about sentencing reform, this bill contradicts those words and wastes valuable taxpayer funds to severely criminalize dissent.” 

The bill passed the General Assembly after almost two months of sustained protests outside the state Capitol, where demonstrators have been calling for racial justice reforms in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police in May. 

Lee and state Republicans have defended the legislation, pointing to fires that were set inside and outside a courthouse in May, though Lee has acknowledged there were portions of the bill he “would have done differently.”