New Tennessee law increases penalties for demonstrators camping on state property

On Aug. 20, 2020, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed a bill into law that increased the punishment for camping on state property from a misdemeanor to a felony. The bill’s signing came as protesters camped outside the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville, demanding the governor address racial inequality and police brutality. Although Tennessee lawmakers touted the new law as a crucial crackdown on crime, advocacy groups have denounced it as criminalizing dissent and restricting Free Speech. 

Key Players

Bill Lee has served as the governor of Tennessee since 2018, when he was elected on a business-oriented Republican platform.

Black Lives Matter protesters in Tennessee began gathering outside the state capitol in Nashville to demonstrate against police brutality after a white police officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. 

Further Details

The legislation sought to impose harsher penalties for Black Lives Matter protesters who broke certain laws during demonstrations. It came as they continuously camped outside the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, demanding a meeting with the governor to discuss racial inequality and police brutality. Demonstrators mostly cleared the area Aug. 12, 2020, after the bill was passed by the General Assembly, the state’s legislature. 

Lee signed the bill Aug. 20, 2020, without public announcement. Under the new law, people who illegally camp on state property would now face a Class E felony charge instead of a misdemeanor; conviction could result in loss of voting rights and up to six years in prison. The bill was part of a larger package of legislation that increased penalties for other crimes, such as vandalism, disorderly conduct, inciting a riot, and offenses against first responders, all of which pertain to the activities of recent demonstrations.


Tennessee government faces criticism for violating protesters’ right to Free Speech 

Supporters of the new law argued it would better protect police and public property and would not impact peaceful protests or infringe on Free Speech. Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the Senate Randy McNally (R) touted the bill as a preventative measure against the forming of “autonomous zones” like the ones in other major cities, in which protesters occupy a certain space and declare it to be self-governing, according to CNN

Activists and civil rights groups said the law effectively disarmed the constitutionally protected right to vote for Tennesseans who participate in protests, a large portion of whom are minorities. The Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern the new legislation was criminalizing dissent and sent a letter to Lee urging him to veto the legislation instead of signing it into law.  

The groups continued to criticize the Tennessee government for allegedly seeking to silence dissent and suppress minority voting by threatening protesters with overly harsh criminal penalties. An opinion column in The Tennessean encouraged citizens to write their local legislators to demand the bill be repealed or amended at the next General Assembly session.