NASHVILLE, Tenn. — State Senate lawmakers are considering a bill that would increase the penalty for obstructing a highway from a class A misdemeanor to a Class E felony, punishable by up to six years in prison and a mandatory fine of up to $3,000.
Critics say the legislation is a response to widespread protests over police brutality and is intended to squash further protests.
Kendra Lee, policy manager for the Equity Alliance, explained a felony charge automatically strips a person of their voting rights and believes the legislation aims to deter people from taking to the streets.
“Whether people are protesting against mask mandates or whether people are protesting against police brutality, we have seen people across political parties and political affiliations who have both expressed their freedom to peacefully assemble,” Lee said.
Supporters of Senate Bill 843, sponsored by Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and its companion, House Bill 513, sponsored by Rep. Ron Gant, R-Rossville, argued the legislation is needed to maintain law and order and prevent violence.
Lee also pointed out the bill simultaneously gives legal immunity, a particular status where an individual or group cannot be punished for violating a law, to anyone in a vehicle who unintentionally causes injury or death to another person while they’re blocking a highway.
“It is not by sheer coincidence this is happening on the heels of the Derek Chauvin trial, and while we are still dealing with police brutality in this nation,” Lee said.
She noted Tennessee is following the trend of state legislatures across the country drafting new bills that some critics say infringe on protestors’ First Amendment rights. Lee added she’s concerned about the level of support for this type of legislation.
“Typically you don’t see so many co-sponsors,” Lee said. “And so that is troubling to me, as a citizen of Tennessee.”
According to data from the Pew Charitable Trusts, since 2016 at least 15 states have increased penalties for unlawful actions such as blocking traffic or tearing down monuments during protests.