MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Several Memphis lawmakers say they’re outraged about new state bills creating harsher punishments for protesting.
The two bills were passed this week during a special called session of the state legislature.
“I think it’s a gross overreaction,” Tennessee State Senator Raumesh Akbari said. “It’s not what our state should be about.”
Two bills passed by legislators increase penalties for protest-related offenses such as vandalism and defacing property.
State Senator Raumesh Akbari says she believes the most egregious aspect of the laws make it a felony offense to set up a tent on state property as seen at the state Capitol in Nashville in recent weeks.
That would be punishable by up to six years in prison and if found guilty, protesters would lose their right to vote.
“It’s ridiculous,” Akbari said. “I think that we have young people expressing their First Amendment rights. They are non-violent, they’ve been peaceful.”
State Senator London Lamar from Memphis tweeted Friday: “I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact my colleagues and the Governor just enacted a bill that will strip citizens voting rights for protesting. Just evil.”
“We want to provide protection for anyone who wants to express their First Amendment rights but we want to do so in a way that’s lawful,” Tennessee Governor Bill Lee said.
Governor Lee said Thursday he disagrees with making camping on state property a felony, but he still plans to sign the bills into law.
“There are aspects of the law that I might have done differently that were different from my initial proposal but on balance,” Governor Lee said. “The law accomplishes what we needed to do and that’s primarily is to provide clarity in the law.”
Governor Lee noted the felony charge includes a warning provision and is at the discretion of district attorneys.
The bills also make local governments financially liable for injuries or damage caused by keeping local law enforcement, fire or medical personnel out of an area, responding to national incidents that occurred in “autonomous zones.”
Senator Akbari hopes the ACLU gets involved and files a lawsuit challenging the bill.
“It’s a political thing that was unnecessary, they pushed it through,” Akbari said. “It was a disappointing day and I’m really hoping that cooler heads will prevail and when we come back in January there will be changes.”