Protesters in Tennessee who camp on state property could now lose their voting rights and face up to six years in prison thanks to a new law signed by the governor on Thursday. House Bill 8005, sponsored by Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, House Republican Majority Leader, went into effect immediately.
Previously, camping out on state property was a misdemeanor, but it will now be classified as a Class E felony, with convicted felons not only losing their right to vote but also their right to carry a gun.
For months, scores of people had been sleeping outside the state capitol as they protested against systemic racism, police brutality and demanded to speak with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.
These protests were largely peaceful but one in May turned violent when protesters set fires inside and outside a courthouse, according to the Associated Press. Some of the protesters also collapsed a statue of Edward Carmack, who has been criticized as racist, outside the Capitol.
Lee, who is yet to meet with protest leaders, said Thursday that the law is needed due to damage to property at some protests. “I think what we saw was a courthouse on fire and businesses being broken into and vehicles being damaged. We saw lawlessness that needed to be addressed immediately. And that was done so,” Lee told reporters, according to the Associated Press.
So far, activists and civil rights groups including the Tennessee chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the NAACP have condemned the law and have lobbied for Lee to veto the bill. The ACLU’s Tennessee chapter has argued that the new law would restrain free speech while criminalizing protests.
“In a critical moment of reckoning that has led to policing reforms nationwide, Tennessee has chosen to turn a blind eye to the reasons the protests are happening and is instead choosing to shut down the right of the people to protest,” Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director, said.
The ACLU added that the new measure would also “make it a felony for a homeless person to sleep on state property, forcing unhoused people onto private property.”
What is more, an individual could be charged with a felony and a minimum of 30 days in jail upon arrest just for trying to intervene “when they witness a police officer using excessive force” the ACLU said.
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which has raised issues with the law and how it will affect voting rights, is considering suing.
“To criminalize protest activity and disenfranchise voters on top of it defies principles that lie at the heart of our Constitution,” the committee’s president, Kristen Clarke, told the Washington Post.
Protesters this week marched through downtown Nashville and to the State Capitol steps against the new law. “What’s happening is an attempt to try to make us afraid to protest and so what we’re going to do is make sure that doesn’t happen,” said a speaker at the protest, Justin Jones.