By Travis Lollar, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Lawmakers concerned about the Occupy Nashville encampment next to the state Capitol are promoting a bill that would criminalize camping on public property across the state.
House Judiciary Chairman Eric Watson, who has a clear view of the 60-or-so tents from his office window, is sponsoring the legislation. He mentioned several reasons for wanting the encampment gone, including a couple last year having sex near his windows.
“A fight broke out yesterday,” he said in a Wednesday interview, “and there was a guy streaking today, running out here naked.”
But he said the main reason for the bill was to ensure equal access to the plaza for other groups, including schools that put on musical programs there.
“They’ve been reluctant to come up here. We’ve even had weddings put off,” Watson said.
The bill, which would make it a misdemeanor to “maintain living quarters on publicly owned property that is not designated or permitted for residential use,” comes several months after Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration lost a legal battle over a curfew that was used to temporarily dislodge the encampment.
Attorney David Briley, who successfully represented Occupy Nashville protesters in that action, said the new bill is “problematic when it comes to the First Amendment.”
Briley also said it is so broad that it is likely to have unintended consequences.
“For example, state legislators who sleep in their offices — would they be committing a crime?” he asked.
Briley said he is willing to work with the state to promulgate rules for the plaza that don’t trample protesters’ rights, but he thinks it should be done following the administrative procedures established for such rulemaking. Haslam’s administration currently is developing rules through that process, which requires public input.
Asked last week about the bill, Haslam said he would want it to be vetted by the state Attorney General’s office.
“But we’re basically, as the administration, following this rulemaking procedure, which is what the judge said was lacking before,” he said.
Watson and Senate sponsor Dolores Gresham said the state attorney general’s office is reviewing the bill and they do not expect legal challenges to the final version.
Protester Elli Whiteway, a student of Christian Ethics at Belmont University, said she expects another court battle if the bill passes.
“What upsets me is, are they trying to criminalize homelessness? Or Occupy? Or both?” she said. “It’s so broad.”
She also noted that one clause of the bill makes it a misdemeanor for an assembly of people to “pose a health hazard or threat” to others using the space. Whiteway said the language is vague enough that it would give officials an excuse to arrest groups they don’t like.
Both sponsors of the bill said they support the right to protest, but feel Occupy Nashville is infringing on the rights of others.
“They’ve made it impossible for anybody else to protest,” Gresham said.
Whiteway adamantly disagreed, saying the group is willing to accommodate anyone who wants to use the space.
“There have been weddings, a book fair, and school groups have definitely come,” she said.
Watson said he would like to pass the bill in February, before school groups begin to show up and other outdoor activities begin to be scheduled for the plaza.
That would please Patricia Ghanem, who is planning a March wedding in Nashville. She said she searched for a long time for somewhere to hold the reception before discovering the War Memorial building and plaza, next to where the protesters are camped out.
She is from Nashville but lives in Denver, so when she was here at Christmas she went to visit the site and ended up walking through a sea of tents.
She said she was shocked at what she saw, but it was too late to change locations. Instead she opted for moving her reception indoors, which she said was “just sad and disappointing.”
If the bill were to pass and the plaza were cleared of campers, Ghanem said, “I would be elated, thrilled.”
The Nashville protesters are part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in lower Manhattan to decry corporate influence in government and wealth inequality. It has spread to cities large and small across the country and around the world.
As far as a long-term plan for the Nashville encampment, Whiteway said, “The purpose of the encampment is to be visible to our legislators, and we plan to stay here until they properly address our grievances.”