Haslam: Curfew About Safety, Not Squelching Free Speech

Gov. Bill Haslam reached out for the first time to Occupy Nashville protesters Friday in a letter explaining to the group that “safety and security” at Legislative Plaza are his administration’s primary motivations in dealing with the protest group.

The letter was delivered to a lawyer representing Occupy Nashville protesters the day after the demonstrators sent their own letter to the governor saying they look forward to being his neighbor.

“Please be assured that this administration wholeheartedly supports your First Amendment right to express your views. As you said, Legislative Plaza should be a place where you and other citizens have an opportunity to exercise their rights of speech and assembly,” Haslam’s letter says.

“For that reason, the safety and security of Legislative Plaza is of great importance to this administration, and in our opinion, to you and other citizens desiring to use the Plaza. The safety and security of the Plaza will not only benefit you but will have an effect on others who live in, work in and visit downtown Nashville,” the letter continued.

The governor’s letter was signed, “Warmest regards, Bill Haslam.”

Tennessee State Police arrested 55 people late last week, mainly protesters, for trespassing on Legislative Plaza after imposing a curfew closing the area from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order against the state to ban it from further arrests while the administration and lawyers representing Occupy Nashville hammer out details of a new policy.

Haslam, who was holding budget hearings on Capitol Hill Friday, told reporters he’s concerned both about safety and the price tag to taxpayers.

“We have limited taxpayer dollars,” he said. “I mean, that’s a concern, safety. I do think there’s been a real effort by Occupy Nashville folks to be really responsible about how they maintain that area. We have to make sure we’re fair for everybody. That’s part of the consideration we take into account.”

Department of General Services Commissioner Steve Cates, who is responsible for the new curfew policy, declined to comment about how the new policy was written but said the protesters’ occupation is costing the state thousands of dollars, but did not specify exactly how much.