(Note: Updates, replaces earlier post)
Unauthorized camping on state property would be subject to a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail under legislation inspired by Occupy Nashville protesters.
The bill passed committees of both the House and Senate on Tuesday.
In the House, Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, guided the bill to 14-2 approval by the House Judiciary Committee — which Watson chairs — over objections from Occupy Nashville protesters and the two Democrats who voted no.
IWatson told protesters at one point, “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” He cited the “sickening” case of a legislative staffer in a courtyard who was sprayed with urine, allegedly from a protester overhead.
About 60 protesters are currently staying in tents on the outdoor Legislative Plaza, which is also the roof over meeting rooms for the Legislature. There are two portable toilets.
“If you approve of that and you think that’s peaceable assembly, you need to be peed on and see how you like it,” Watson said.
The chairman and other backers of the bill said it would allow protests to continue, but not the establishment of living quarters on public property. The bill in some respects copies federal legislation that bans unauthorized camping in national parks, backers said.
Michael Custer, an Occupy Nashville protester, said the tents are a form of protest and free speech entitled to First Amendment protection. In effect, he said, the tents are the equivalent of television and billboards used by corporations in their “free speech” efforts.
Others objected to the harshness of the penalty. As originally introduced, the penalty would have been a $50 fine or 30 days in jail, but that was increased by an amendment adopted in the committee.
“We can say what we want about this, but the effect of this bill is to take a peaceful protest and make it a criminal act,” said Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, who cast one of the two no votes.
Stewart also said the bill “imposes an extraordinary penalty for putting up a tent.”
Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, said the legislation is an appropriate way to address health and safety concerns, comparable to laws that make it illegal to block a highway.
“This doesn’t deal with someone’s right to protest,” added Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol. “It deals with the right to live there.”
Watson said most protesters may behave properly, but there have been a host of incidents since the encampment was established in October, including 21 fights and more than 1,000 reports of misconduct involving “everything from crack cocaine, marijuana, meth, theft of purses” and sexual activity.
Highway Patrolmen arrested scores of Occupy Nashville protesters in late October, but a Nashville judge dismissed the arrests warrants saying the protesters had violated no law or government rule on the books. Subsequently, a federal judge issued an injunction against arrest or removal of the protesters.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has since been working on enactment of rules that would govern camping and protesting on state properties. Some legislators say enactment of the bill (HB2638) could eliminate the need for new rules.
The bill was also approved Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 7-1 vote. That means it could be approved by both chambers as early as Thursday.