Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a bill this week that will see protesters face harsher penalties, including potentially losing their voting rights. The Hill reports that the new law stipulates that anyone who "illegally" camps on state property could face a Class E felony, for which the maximum sentence is six years in prison, and anyone in the state found guilty of a felony loses the right to vote.
Lee has indicated that there are aspects of the bill he "would have done differently," but he still made the proposal law effective immediately on Thursday. As part of the bill, there's now a mandatory minimum 45-day hold for any potential protesters convicted of aggravated rioting. At the same time, the fine for obstructing emergency vehicles from accessing highways will also be increased. A Class C felony for anyone convicted of aggravated assault has been introduced, too, carrying a $15,000 fine and a 90-day minimum prison sentence.
“We are very disappointed in Governor Lee’s decision to sign this bill, which chills free speech, undermines criminal justice reform and fails to address the very issues of racial justice and police violence raised by the protesters who are being targeted,” ACLU Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg told the Associated Press. “While the governor often speaks about sentencing reform, this bill contradicts those words and wastes valuable taxpayer funds to severely criminalize dissent.”
Despite criticism of the bill, Lee defended its introduction by highlighting a demonstration in May that saw fires start in and outside a local courthouse. "I think what we saw was a courthouse on fire and businesses being broken into and vehicles being damaged. We saw lawlessness that needed to be addressed immediately," he told reporters this week.