Protesters in Tennessee charged with rioting, assaulting a police officer, or vandalizing state property will now face greater fines and longer prison sentences, following a new bill signed into law on August 18 by Gov. Bill Lee.
The Republican majority in the state’s legislature passed the bill (HB 8005/SB 8005) on August 13 by a wide majority in both the House and Senate, despite push back from civil libertarians who are worried the higher penalties might discourage protest.
Under the new law, protesters who “knowingly cause physical contact” with a police officer “that a reasonable person would regard as extremely offensive or provocative” would have to pay $5,000 in fines and a 30-day jail sentence. If an officer were seriously injured, the fine would jump to $15,000 with a minimum jail time of 90 days.
The bill also increases fines for obstructing highways and prohibits people from camping on state grounds.
Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville), who voted against the bill, said that the bill sends the wrong message to the public.
“When you’re telling people that for a simple assault, they are going to be facing a mandatory $5,000 fine and a mandatory 30 days incarceration, you are telling them they are going to put themselves in grave risk if they exercise their first amendment rights,” Stewart said.
A day after the bill was passed, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee wrote a letter to Gov. Lee urging him to veto the bill.
“ACLU-Tennessee opposes this legislation not only because it intentionally chills free speech and protest and increases incarceration rates in our state, but because in this important moment in our history, amidst calls for racial justice and an end to police violence, the Tennessee General Assembly has chosen to ignore those calls and instead has prioritized punishing the people courageous enough to speak out,” the letter said.
Sen. Raumesh Akbari, the Senate Democratic Caucus chairwoman, called out the bill targeting Capitol Hill protestors as a measure designed to shut down dissenting opinion.
“It doesn’t matter the issue folks are protesting. It’s our right. We’re Americans. I subscribe to the American Dream just like they do even if I don’t agree with them,” Sen. Akbari said. “This law is unnecessary. It is creating felons from people who just want to have their voice heard.
“I wonder if we went back 55 years: would this be the same type of laws that were passed against non-violent protesters? Against those we have made heroes, like Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis.”