A bill requiring that Occupy Nashville protesters break camp on War Memorial Plaza passed the Senate Thursday, 21 to 9. The legislation is in need now of only one more formalizing vote in the House before heading to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam.
Known as the Equal Access to Public Property Act of 2012, the proposed new law states that camping will be prohibited on any state-owned public property not designated as a campground. It also defines camping as erecting any temporary structure, or laying down bedding materials for the purposes of sleeping.
An amendment on the bill also states that “camping” includes cooking activities and storing of personal belongings, as well as engaging in digging.
Some lawmakers believe the measure’s language is too open-ended.
Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, who said he originally expected to vote for the bill, argued against the bill, saying its language is too broad and subject to on-the-spot interpretation. It might cause a law-abiding citizen — like, for example, a hunter in a duck blind warming up some food to eat on public lands — to unintentionally commit a crime, he said.
Other critics voiced disapproval of the bill on grounds that it restricts the fundamental right to assemble for peaceful protest.
“If it were not for protest in this country, we would not have had a civil rights movement, we would not have had people have the opportunity to gain the rights that should have always been afforded to them, the Vietnam War might still be going on if it weren’t for a certain number of protesters,” said Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis.
Two other Memphis Democrats, Jim Kyle and Ophelia Ford, expressed similar views. “I would just like to briefly remind everyone in this senate, that this country was created out of civil unrest,” Kyle said. “And I would only say to you that if the government silences civil unrest, it’ll find itself with uncivil unrest.”
Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, also opposed the bill and suggested that creating a regulation, instead of writing a law to deal with this problem, is preferable.
“If you put this into statute, and something comes up – times change, situations change – it takes another public act to amend it,” Henry said, and explained that a regulation is easier to remove or change than a law.
Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, sponsor of the legislation, defended the bill, saying it has nothing to do with limiting constitutionally protected freedoms. The only intent is to help ensure public land “be managed responsibly for everyone,” she said.
Although the Senate conformed to the House Bill, HB 2638, it also amended the bill to incorporate a severability clause. Even though the substance of the bill wasn’t changed Thursday from the House’s version passed earlier this month by a wide margin, the bill now needs one more vote of approval from the House.
After it goes to Gov. Haslam and he signs it, Ramsey said he expects that there will be a short grace-period to allow anyone still camped out on the plaza time to remove themselves and their belongings.
“We want to be reasonable about this — to give some warning to the people that are permanently camped on the legislative plaza, to say you have a week, 10 days, whatever the administration decides, to get off or you will be removed,” said Ramsey. “I think that’s being very reasonable.”