NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Thursday that he will sign a bill that toughens penalties on some protests in response to continued demonstrations in the state and nationwide over racial injustice.
The Republican said, however, that he would have crafted some components differently than the GOP-led Legislature, including the increased penalty on those who illegally camp on state property to a Class E felony, punishable by up to six years in prison. Felony convictions in Tennessee additionally result in the revocation of an individual's right to vote.
However, Lee said he doesn't remember what penalty he proposed for the offense, which is currently a misdemeanor.
Lee said the requirement that law enforcement offer an initial warning on camping violations strengthened the bill. He also cited the discretion of district attorneys and judges.
"I called a session with this in mind, passing a piece of legislation that ensures lawlessness doesn't occur in the midst of protest," Lee said at a news conference. "And so on the balance, that's what this accomplishes. It provides clarity and that's why I'll sign it."
Asked how the felony penalty for camping lines up with his push for criminal justice reform, Lee said Thursday that criminal justice reform "includes the understanding that you can be tough on crime and smart on crime at the same time."
Lee also said he will sign bills to limit liability for businesses sued over COVID-19 and to expand telehealth offerings that lawmakers passed during the three-day session that ended Wednesday.
The protest proposal, which becomes law upon the governor's signature, also would impose mandatory minimums for rioting, create an offense against assaulting a first responder and enhance the misdemeanor penalty for damaging state property.
Outside the Capitol, a group of mostly young Black activists have been calling for racial justice reforms for the past two months. More than a dozen were arrested Wednesday on criminal trespassing charges after some of them handcuffed themselves to a railing outside the Capitol, said Tennessee Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Bill Miller.
On multiple occasions, the protesters have had some items confiscated by law enforcement under the existing law against camping.
The protesters did not appear to be in place Thursday outside the building.
Arguing for the bill, Republican lawmakers had largely pointed to demonstrations in other parts of the country that saw "occupied" protest zones, and to a May 31 protest in Nashville that turned violent and resulted in damage to the city's historic courthouse.
Democrats called the bill "ridiculous" and argued the felony punishment for illegal camping would unfairly hurt minority and homeless communities.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security is reviewing an incident Monday at the Capitol involving Trooper Harvey Briggs, said department spokesman Wes Moster.
Video by protester Andrew Golden, who appeared to be filming a traffic stop, showed Briggs tell Golden not to "impede" the scene.
Briggs was unmasked as he got up close to Golden's face. Golden says on camera that Briggs then ripped off his mask, though that doesn't appear in the video. A mask was visible on the ground near him, however. In response to the accusation, Briggs said in the video, "I did not," and, "I'm tired of you people making stuff up."