June 10, 2023

This red state governor signed a bill increasing penalties on protesters

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee quietly signed into law increased penalties for protesters. Lee, a former businessman, was elected in 2018. The bill signed into law is a no-nonsense response to two months of frequent protests outside the Capitol. The increased penalties include losing the right to vote for breaking certain laws while protesting.

Instead of looking the other way or encouraging and supporting protests that often turn violent or destroy property, like blue state governors and lawmakers are doing, this red state’s General Assembly held a special three-day legislative session last week to pass bills on COVID-19 liability immunity and telemedicine and included this bill to address protests. The Tennessee General Assembly is a majority Republican body. Governor Lee said there are some portions of the bill that he “would have done differently” but agreed to make the proposal law effective immediately with his signature.

The bill specifically addresses illegally camping on state property (like at the Capitol) and aggravated rioting.

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.

It makes sense to increase penalties on those blocking emergency vehicles as streets and major intersections are being blocked by protesters, as well as addressing violence toward first responders. These are public safety issues, not a violation of a protester’s First Amendment rights of free speech and protesting. The right to protest is the right to peacefully protest, not to impose the protester’s actions at the expense of innocent non-protesters.

Last week the NAACP and the ACLU of Tennessee urged the governor to veto the bill. Now they vow to monitor enforcement of the law and urged Tennesseans “to get out and vote like their rights depend on it.” The two groups prefer to favor protesters over non-protesting Tennesseans.

“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 ACLU conflates the rights of protesters versus criminalizing dissent. Actions have consequences, at least in some states. Leftists do not believe protesters should suffer consequences when their actions become illegal. The rights of protesters don’t include federal or state property destruction, or personal property, for that matter. How does violence against police (like throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks) at the hands of protesters encourage police reform or criminal justice reform? Civil disobedience is a standard way of protesting in America but that doesn’t include crossing the line into chaotic destruction and violence.

Mostly young Black activists organize the protests and have requested a meeting with the governor as they call for racial justice reforms. Governor Lee hasn’t met with them but has met with Black leaders as part of his promise to address “racial reconciliation” and other racial justice issues. Lee said the legislation is justified due to violent turns of events, like 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.”

This is a step in the right direction. Governor Lee signed the legislation quietly, without fanfare, just doing his job to protect the people of Tennessee while also protecting the First Amendment rights of citizens.

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