by Jeff Woods
The 20-10 vote was a foregone conclusion, but spectators still were forced to endure a farcical debate in which the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dolores Gresham, pretended this was not about quashing free speech. No, the legislature is merely acting as good stewards of public property, she said. To hear Gresham talk, you’d think we were designating a new wilderness area somewhere.
Republicans obviously read their talking points from legal counsel. It’s fun to slap down protesters like some two-bit dictator, but it looks bad in federal court. Better to avoid the usual ranting and raving against long-haired hippie types and to claim instead that you’re passing an innocuous land management law.
“The bill is designed to create order in the use and management of public lands so that these properties are available and accessible to all the people of Tennessee,” Gresham said, somehow keeping a straight face.
Only three Democrats— Sens. Jim Kyle, Ophelia Ford and Beverly Marrero—spoke out against the bill on First Amendment grounds.
"If this were another country and they were not allowed to protest, we’d be up in arms," Marrero said. "We have people here who are protesting what they consider to be unfairness in our society and I think they certainly have the right to have their speech heard. Some of these people at great personal sacrifice have been out there in all kinds of bad weather in order to stand up for what they believe in. This takes away basic rights from people in Tennessee. Everybody’s voice needs to be heard."
"This bill does not have anything to do with right of protest, right of assembly, right of redress of grievances," Gresham replied, innocently batting her eyes. "It has to do with public management of state property."
Another Democrat, Sen. Douglas Henry, said he was all for giving the boot to the protesters. He said they are sullying the memory of the war dead for whom the plaza is named. Henry said he'd rather do it through state regulation, though. Whatever.
Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, liked the idea of evicting the demonstrators too, but he worried that the bill is so broadly worded that it might threaten Boy Scouts on a camping trip or duck hunters in a blind on Reelfoot Lake. Who cares about free speech rights when there are campers and hunters to protect?
The bill goes back to the House on Monday for concurrence in a Senate amendment—a severability clause to ensure that, if any part of the law is tossed out in court, the rest will remain in effect. After that, Gov. Bill Haslam has said he will sign the bill into law. Once he does that, he says he will consult with the attorney general's office about whether to enforce it. U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger issued an injunction against the last round of arrests back in October. But her order was narrowly drawn, barring the state from enforcing its hastily imposed 10 p.m. curfew. It does not apply to this new statute. If Occupy Nashville remains on the plaza, expect more arrests soon.