Gov. Bill Lee signs controversial bill increasing punishment for protest-related offenses into law

Gov. Bill Lee signs controversial bill increasing punishment for protest-related offenses into law

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has signed a controversial bill into law increasing mandatory sentencing for a variety of protest-related crimes.

Some Memphis lawmakers hope to get the law changed when the legislature goes back into session next year.

The new law has received criticism from the ACLU for potentially infringing on First Amendment rights.

One activist says the new law won’t slow them down.

This week, Governor Bill Lee quietly signed a new bill into law passed by the GOP controlled legislature that makes it a felony to illegally camp on state property, punishable by up to six years in prison. People found guilty of a felony in Tennessee lose their right to vote.

“I don’t like it, it’s ugly. It seems to be solving a problem that really doesn’t exist in Tennessee and it’s just unnecessary,” Raumesh Akbari, TN State Senator District 29 said. “And it’s going to cost the state money!”

State Senator Raumesh Akbari is concerned about the far reaching affects of the law that also includes a mandatory 45-day sentence for aggravated rioting and boosts the fine for blocking highway access to emergency vehicles, which happened in Memphis on I-55 during Black Lives Matter protests in May.

Memphis lawmakers outraged by new bills set to increase punishments for protester-related crimes

“We’re not talking about folks who are committing violent acts or that are breaking the law,” Akbari said. “There is information in that legislation that will make it a crime to disrupt a meeting. Disrupting a meeting could be chanting out of a meeting.”

“I think that everybody in the state should be concerned around these laws,” community activist Hunter Demster said.

Hunter Demster is a community activist who has participated and helped organize many protests in Memphis.

“This isn’t the first time our First Amendment rights have been under attack,” Demster said. “It’s not going to stop us. Now as far as changing some tactics? Potentially.”

Last week, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee said he would have done some things different in the bill such as the felony provision for camping on state property, but overall he approved the of the bill’s contents and defended the law by claiming several fires were started inside and outside a courthouse in Nashville during protests in May.

“We can’t tolerate lawless and destruction of property in this state,” Gov. Bill Lee said. “And I think the intent of the law around the use of state property is to make that evident.”

The ACLU of Tennessee has gotten involved, saying they’ll monitor the enforcement of the law very closely.

Their statement from Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director reads:

“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. While the governor often speaks about sentencing reform, this bill contradicts those words and wastes valuable taxpayer funds to severely criminalize dissent. This law also robs individuals of their right to vote if they are convicted of these new felony charges. In a critical moment of reckoning that has led to policing reforms nationwide, Tennessee has chosen to turn a blind eye to the reasons the protests are happening and is instead choosing to shut down the right of the people to protest. We will be closely monitoring enforcement of this law and are urging Tennesseans to get out and vote like their rights depend on it.”

State Senator Akbari says she hopes the law can be revised in a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that is expected to be presented in the legislature next year.

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