Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee quietly signed off on a bill last week that would cause certain protesters to face harsher penalties, including the right to vote, the Associated Press reports.
The bill was passed Tennesse’s Republican-controlled General Assembly during a three-day special legislative session.
Now, instead of facing a misdemeanor, those who illegally camp on state property will face a Class E felony. If convicted they face up to six years in prison, and, more notably, will face the revocation of their voting rights.
Lee pointed to a provision that would require a warning for those who are caught illegally camping and noted that prosecutors and judges would have discretion.
According to the AP, the bill also ups penalties for aggravated rioting, by imposing a mandatory minimum 45-day hold if convicted. There will also be an increased fine for blocking emergency vehicles from highways and makes a Class C Felony offense of aggravated assault against a first responder.
The decision to sign the bill into law drew criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.
“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 of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said in a statement. “While the governor often speaks about sentencing reform, this bill contradicts those words and wastes valuable taxpayer funds to severely criminalize dissent.”
Lee defended the bill noting the destruction of property in late May from protests surrounding the death of George Floyd.
“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. And that was done so,” Lee said according to the AP.