Tents and other “living quarters” would not be allowed on public spaces, under a bill advancing at the Capitol aimed at the Occupy Nashville protest – whose members have been camped on War Memorial Plaza for four months.
Members of that group say the bill would limit free speech and criminalize homelessness. On Wednesday it moved out of a subcommittee to the House Judiciary Committee.
The bill, HB2638, aims to prevent “people from living on publicly-owned property not designated for residential use and prohibits people using publicly-owned property from posing a health hazard or threat to the safety and welfare of others.”
“It is not a bill that will make the protest on the plaza end. It is not a bill that denies First Amendment rights to any individual,” said Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, the sponsor of the bill. “What this bill does, though, it restores the entire public’s right to utilize all the public property around the state, not just a single group.”
Occupy Nashville released an open letter to Gov. Bill Haslam, the General Assembly and the Highway Patrol in response to this bill’s filing.
The bill was amended Wednesday morning to provide the state with the right to prevent people from camping on public grounds where camping is not permitted.
The new amendment, which is named the “Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012,” is based on a 1984 federal law, supported by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, that gives the states the right to do this, Watson said.
Additionally, the amendment would change a violation of the no-camping law from a Class C to a Class B misdemeanor, raising the fine from $50 to $500. However, the amendment doesn’t allow for incarceration as a form of punishment.
“This seems to me to be sweeping legislation that could be used to silence dissent and punish our unhoused brothers and sisters for their poverty,” said Bill Howell, a member of Occupy Nashville and the progressive group Tennesseans for Fair Taxation at the subcommittee meeting. “What we see on the plaza every day is the direct result of bad public policy, both state and federal, that has served to further enrich the rich and impoverish the poor.”
Howell said people participating in the round-the-clock protest could catch cold if tents were banned.
The Occupy movement claims the bill is unconstitutional.
“The $500 fine is an infringement of free speech because it would have a negative effect on 24-hour vigils,” said Jane Steinfels Hussain, a group spokeswoman.
Last fall, when the Occupy movement was evicted from Legislative Plaza, Gov. Bill Haslam said that the reasoning behind the new policy was public safety, not to prevent free speech.
A few weeks later Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said that although he believes in freedom of speech, the Occupy movement had overstepped its bounds.