Republicans denied they were restricting First Amendment rights and claimed they merely were enacting a No Camping law to preserve state property for use by all the public.
“This has nothing to do with protesting,” said the sponsor, House Judiciary Committee chairman Eric Watson, R-Cleveland. “People need to read the bill. This just prohibits camping on state property. This property belongs to all Tennesseans. This bill restores the entire public’s right to utilize property here at the state Capitol.”
Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville, called it “ridiculous to think otherwise.”
“You have the First Amendment right to come to this plaza to redress your grievances. But you don’t have the First Amendment right to sleep. Your tent has absolutely no First Amendment rights. At what point is protesting just taking a nap?”
Democrats recalled sit-ins of the civil rights era and argued Occupy Nashville has the right to demonstrate on War Memorial Plaza just as the Ku Klux Klan and Tea Partiers have that right.
“We give the Ku Klux Klan, as reprehensible as they are to me and I hope to you guys, they have the right to protest in this country,” House Democratic Caucus chairman Mike Turner said. “They were camping at Tiananmen Square and they put the tanks on them and they threw them out. Most of you would defend the right to carry a gun anywhere in the state. We’re going to carry guns everywhere in the state of Tennessee, but by God, you can’t camp.”
Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, called the legislation “unprecedented in our country.”
“We’ve allowed super PACs to rise up such that any billionaire can roll out of bed and secretly fund somebody’s campaign. The point is, here we are in a country right now where wealthy people have been given the power to literally control presidential campaigns with their money” because that's free speech, yet the legislature is outlawing Occupy Nashville’s encampment.
Democrats also objected to the penalty for breaking the law—11 months and 29 days in jail and a $2,500 fine. “It seems like there was a special effort here to be punitive,” Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, said.
The bill's passage in the Senate—probably next week—is certain. Gov. Bill Haslam said yesterday he will sign the bill into law once that happens, but he said he will consult with the attorney general’s office before deciding whether to enforce it.
The law could face a court test. It seems to be on shaky constitutional grounds because it obviously specifically targets Occupy Nashville. Protesters are talking about taking down their tents—some already have gone home. But they say they will return in shifts to maintain a 24/7 vigil on the plaza. Others say they will defy the new law and dare state troopers to arrest them.