Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed legislation on Thursday that will increase penalties for individuals caught camping on state property.
Bill HB 8005 increases the punishment for camping on state property from a misdemeanor to a class E felony that is punishable by up to six years in prison.
Signing of the bill comes as protesters have been camping outside the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville, demanding a meeting with the Republican governor to discuss racial inequality and police brutality since June, according to the Washington Post. Protesters are also asking for the removal of a Nathan Bedford Forrest bust at the State Capitol. Forrest was a slave trader and early Ku Klux Klan leader.
Campers would first be given a warning and those who refuse to leave would then be charged with a felony. Notably, convicted felons in Tennessee lose their right to vote, which could be a major blow to protesters amid a high-stakes election year.
Lee’s signing of the bill comes just one week after the GOP-controlled General Assembly first passed the legislation. At the time, Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the Senate Randy McNally, a Republican, touted the bill as a preventative measure against the forming of autonomous zones like the ones in other major cities.
“It is to prevent what has happened in other cities like Portland and Washington, DC,” McNally said at a news conference after the measure passed. “If people, knowingly violate the law, knowingly thumb their nose at authority and don’t do what authorities have requested they do, they should be charged with a serious crime.”
The bill’s sponsor, Republican House Majority Leader William Lamberth, said at the same news conference that the bill was to crack down on “criminal elements” and protect law enforcement officers.
“And then specifically on the criminal justice reform bill that cracks down on criminal elements out there that are unfortunately are making it very difficult for folks to even visit this capitol,” Lamberth said.
The bill was part of a larger package of legislation signed by Lee that increases penalties for certain crimes like vandalism, disorderly conduct, inciting a riot and offenses to first responders. The new bill took effect immediately, according to The Tennessean.
“Anytime a law enforcement officer is assaulted I would agree that really is an assault on the state of Tennessee and all of our people, because that officer is really out there to protect and serve us. From whenever these bills are signed by the governor or go into law … every officer can be certain they will be protected more than they are right now,” Lamberth said.
The Tennessee chapter of the ACLU denounced Lee’s signing of the bill as a “chill on free speech.”
“While the governor often speaks about sentencing reform, this bill contradicts those words and wastes valuable taxpayer funds to severely criminalize dissent,” Hedy Weinberg, executive director of ACLU of Tennessee, said in a statement to CNN.
The civil rights organization sent a letter to Lee on August 14 urging him to veto the legislation.
“This law also robs individuals of their right to vote if they are convicted of these new felony charges. We will be closely monitoring enforcement of this law and are urging Tennesseans to get out and vote like their rights depend on it,” Weinberg said.