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Tennessee gov signs bill upping penalties on some protests

August 21, 2020 GMT
Thousands participated in a Black Lives Matter march through Alcoa and Maryville, Tenn., Sunday June 7, 2020. The course of the march led attendees from the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center to the Blount County Courthouse inn Blount County . (Scott Keller/The Daily Times via AP)
Thousands participated in a Black Lives Matter march through Alcoa and Maryville, Tenn., Sunday June 7, 2020. The course of the march led attendees from the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center to the Blount County Courthouse inn Blount County . (Scott Keller/The Daily Times via AP)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee protesters will face harsher penalties, including losing the right to vote, for breaking certain laws during demonstrations under a law enacted by Gov. Bill Lee.

The Republican governor quietly signed off on the bill Thursday. Lee has previously conceded there were portions of the bill he “would have done differently” but ultimately agreed to make the proposal law effective immediately with his signature.

Tennessee’s GOP-dominant General Assembly advanced the measure last week during a brief three-day special legislative session while also passing bills on COVID-19 liability immunity and telemedicine.

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Most notably, the new law now states that those who illegally camp on state property would now face a Class E felony, punishable by up to six years in prison, rather than a misdemeanor. Felony convictions in Tennessee result in the revocation of an individual’s right to vote.

The bill also imposes a mandatory minimum 45-day hold if convicted of aggravated rioting; enhances the fine for obstructing emergency vehicles from accessing highways; requires a court to order restitution for damaging state property; and creates a Class C felony offense for aggravated assault against a first responder — which carries a $15,000 fine and mandatory minimum 90-day prison sentence.

The governor said a provision requiring a warning to those camping illegally strengthened the bill, and cited the discretion of prosecutors and judges.

The leader of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, who had asked Lee to veto the legislation, said Thursday the group will be closely monitoring enforcement of the law and 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. “While the governor often speaks about sentencing reform, this bill contradicts those words and wastes valuable taxpayer funds to severely criminalize dissent.”

Lawmakers advanced the bill amid nearly two months of frequent protests outside the Capitol. The mostly young Black activists who spearheaded the demonstration had been calling for racial justice reforms and for a meeting with Lee.

The governor has declined to meet with them, but has met with a handful of Black leaders as part of a previous promise to address “racial reconciliation” and other racial justice issues.

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However, Lee and other lawmakers have defended the protest bill by pointing to a late May demonstration that resulted with some participants setting fires inside and outside a courthouse.

“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 Thursday when asked about the bill.

The protest occurred as demonstrators across the country protested the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who pleaded for air as a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on his neck.

Multiple demonstrations throughout Tennessee since then have remained overwhelmingly peaceful.