Tennessee legislators tired of seeing tents camped outside their windows gave final approval to a bill Monday making it a crime to erect shelters or lay bedding on state property not sanctioned for camping.
The legislation is targeted at Occupy Nashville protesters who have made the marble roof of downtown’s Legislative Plaza their home since the fall, but the pending new law is prone to unintended consequences, according to Rep. Frank Niceley, a Strawberry Plains Republican.
“I was fine with moving the protesters off of the plaza. I thought that needs to be done. But the way they wrote the bill, it would affect anyone,” he told TNReport. “If you’re out in the country, and the state owns hundreds of thousands of acres of state land, and you accidentally camp on one, well, some overzealous deputy could get you in trouble.”
Niceley opted not to cast a vote on the measure which passed both chambers easily with Republican and some Democratic support. But he said he wants to see legislation next year narrowing the language to protect people who simply need a place to camp.
“I’ve done a lot of camping in my life, under bridges and on the roadsides. You have the European college students come over here, and they trek across the country on their walkabout, and I thought it just was too broad,” he added.
HB2638, which heads to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk, would ban 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.
Haslam has said he will likely OK the bill but won’t pull the trigger on evicting Occupy Nashville protesters until after his administration finishes a new rule-making process dictating how War Memorial Plaza is used. That task may wrap up after lawmakers have gone home for the year, he said.