Occupiers, Pack Up Those Tents, House Says

House lawmakers OK’d a measure Thursday that would oust tent-living Occupy Nashville protesters from the Capitol Hill grounds.

The bill would prohibit people from pitching tents on state government property where camping is not expressly permitted. For example, the bill could be broadly interpreted to forbid, say, camping outside rest stops along I-40 to lobby for better vending machines, as well as any overnight demonstrations to bring attention to the state flower at this state-run iris garden. Most assuredly, there would be no 24-hour vigils at the cosmetology board for tougher standards for state-licensed manicurists.

The Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012 still has a little ways to go before it lands on the governor’s desk. Gov. Bill Haslam said this week he expects to sign the measure although he plans to exercise little enforcement until his staff irons out policies for using state government space and queries the state’s top lawyer about the next legal move.

“We’ll have to talk with the Attorney General and others to decide once you pass the law exactly what does that give the state the authority to do,” Haslam said.

The bill – HB2638 – bans anyone from camping, including “laying down of bedding for the purpose of sleeping,” on government-owned property not designated for camping, punishable with a fine up to $2,500 and up to 364 days jail time.

The measure easily passed the House, 70-26, with seven Democrats breaking ranks to join the GOP.

The legislation clearly would change the nature of the Occupy Nashville protests that target corporate influence on government.

Republicans have seen the protest as an eyesore. Dozens of tents line the perimeter of the plaza just outside many of their office windows. Haslam ended up on the losing side of a federal injunction last year when a federal judge said the state didn’t have the authority to arrest protesters camping outside the seat of state government.

Democrats argue banning tents on properties like War Memorial Plaza — which the movement claimed as its home — equates to an infringement on free speech rights.

Republicans argue the issue is about protecting taxpayer property.

“When do you have to have a tent to protest?” bill sponsor Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, asked rhetorically on the House floor as Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, argued against the bill.

Towns’ answer: “When it’s cold.”

One Republican suggested lawmakers opposing the camping ban exempt legislative offices in their own districts so protesters would have a place to pitch tents.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, who has hinted an interested in running for Nashville mayor someday, said there are too many rules about when and where to protest, including city rules forbidding Occupy Nashville from camping on Metro property.

“The act of protest itself is kind of rubbing up against the system as-is,” Turner, D-Old Hickory, told reporters. “So if you have to protest, but the government laid out the rules of how you’re supposed to protest, your protest probably wouldn’t be very effective.”

The Senate is set to pick up the bill next Thursday.