NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The sponsor of a proposal to clear the Capitol complex of Occupy Nashville tents says it's not intended to quiet protesters, but stop the criminal activity and lewd behavior surrounding the protest.
The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday voted 14-2 to approve the measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Eric Watson of Cleveland, the panel's chairman.
The legislation would make it a misdemeanor to lay down "bedding for the purpose of sleeping." The proposal refers to items associated with camping, "including tents, portable toilets, sleeping bags, tarps, propane heaters, cooking equipment and generators."
The protesters have camped at the plaza since early October. There are about 60 or so tents on the plaza and at least two portable toilets nearby.
Watson and other lawmakers said they're not trying to prevent the protesters from exercising their First Amendment right to assemble and voice their opinion.
"This does nothing to prevent people from protesting," said Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol. "It prevents them from living there."
Watson said the protesters may have positive intentions, but incidents around the protest tarnish their efforts to have a "peaceable assembly."
He noted that since Oct. 7, there have been 21 fights on the plaza across from the Capitol, 131 people arrested by Nashville police, and over 1,000 reports of other misconduct on the block.
"Everything from crack cocaine, marijuana, meth, theft of purses, and the ... sickest part is one of our employees that works at the plaza here was peed on," Watson said. "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. And if you think that's peaceable assembly, you need to be peed on, and see how you like it."
Under the proposal, violators would be fined as much as $2,500 and face up to 11 months and 29 days in jail.
Protester Jane Steinfels Hussain said the punishment is excessive.
"I'm in a state of shock right now," she said after the meeting. "So, for having a blanket, for having a piece of plastic to cover yourself in the rain, one year in jail or $2,500. It's unbelievable."
The bill comes several months after Gov. Bill Haslam's administration lost a legal battle over a curfew that was used to temporarily dislodge the encampment. The administration is currently following a judge's orders and promulgating rules for use of the plaza.
Haslam told reporters after an education roundtable at Mount Pleasant Middle School on Tuesday that he plans to continue the rulemaking process, but isn't objecting to the proposed legislation.
"One of the things we've said to the Legislature is even if that passes, and even if I sign it, doesn't mean that the next day all the tents are gone," Haslam said. "There are some rules that have to be put in place. So there's a little bit of a dual process."
Read HB2638 at http://capitol.tn.gov .
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