A bill to make camping on public property illegal passed both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees Tuesday, over the protest of members of the Occupy Nashville group.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who has been an outspoken critic of the protesters’ encampment, says the issue is one of safety, not squelching of First Amendment rights.
“I support our constitution and embrace with open arms our rights of free speech and assembly,” Ramsey wrote in a statement posted to his Facebook page after the measure passed overwhelmingly through committees in both chambers. “Liberal judges here in Nashville and on the federal bench can try and twist the law however they want but the reality is clear: this occupation has gone beyond speech and assembly and become an embarrassment — both to causes Occupy purports to support and the state of Tennessee at large.”
House Bill 2638 passed the House committee, 14-2, with the only dissenting members being Reps. Karen Camper, D-Memphis, and Mike Stewart, D-Nashville.
It also passed in the Senate committee, 7-1, with one legislator, Memphis Democrat Ophelia Ford, abstaining from the vote.
In the Senate hearing, Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, expressed concern over the wording of the bill, and that it might be interpreted to prevent protesting in general. Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, voted against the bill.
The bills now go to scheduling committees before being heard on both chamber floors of the General Assembly.
The bills were each amended to make a violation a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum punishment of a a $2,500 fine and nearly a year imprisonment. It would have previously been a Class B offense.
“I think this bill is very redundant, because the acts that they’re pointing to are already illegal,” said Megan Riggs, member of Occupy Nashville. “They do have the power to patrol the plaza and make sure it’s safe, not just for who they’re concerned about, the people that work here, but also the protesters on the plaza, the people that they’ve been elected to protect.”
The bill is being opposed by Occupy Nashville on the grounds that it negatively affects their constitutional right to protest and that it would criminalize being homeless.
But Judiciary Committee Chairman Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, the bill’s House sponsor, disagrees.
“It’s totally different,” Watson said. “They’re the ones bringing up that issue. They’re saying the that homeless are going to be arrested. Well, they can be arrested now, and that’s something they need to do the research on.”
Watson said homeless people could be arrested for violating local loitering laws.
Watson said that while he supports the Occupy Nashville members’ right to protest, he doesn’t perceive their activities to be a protest. He said he hadn’t seen signs or placards recently, for example. He was also upset that some members had been arrested for drug use and theft, and that a protester had urinated on a Capitol staffer.
“One of the employees that works at the plaza here was peed on,” Watson said. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, and if you approve of that – if you think that’s peaceable assembly – you need to be peed on, see how you like it.”
There were a couple dozen Occupy Nashville members present at the hearings, with a few members speaking to the committee.
“When we the people said we want money out of politics, the U.S. Supreme Court said money was free speech,” said Michael Custer, an Occupy Nashville representative. “Well, if money is free speech, then surely a 24-hour vigil, seven days a week, through the rain and cold of our Tennessee winters must also count as free speech.”
Corporations have money to buy advertising on television and billboards so that their voices are heard, but the Occupy movement doesn’t have the money to buy advertising for their voices, Custer said.
“Those tents, they are our billboard,” Custer said.
This sentiment is shared by several other Occupy members.
“If money, in our country, constitutes free speech, then so does protecting yourself from the elements,” said Lindsey Krinks, a member of Occupy Nashville, “So does being out on a 24-hour vigil and keeping yourself dry and being able to sleep and maintain acts of daily living.”
There was some brief discussion between Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, and Reps. Stewart and Camper in the House committee.
Dennis backed the bill, saying that it was the responsibility of elected officials to determine the best use for public property, and to protect it for use by all.
Stewart claimed that the bill was an attempt to take a peaceful protest and turn it into a crime, while Camper identified the Occupy movement with sit-ins from the civil rights movement of the ‘60s.
The Occupy Nashville group has been camped in Legislative Plaza since the beginning of October of last year in protest of the corrupting influence of corporate money on politics. Since then, a federal court judge issued an injunction barring the state from removing the protesters.
The Haslam administration attempted to remove the protesters from the plaza in October. A federal judge halted the arrests.