Just weeks after returning to Capitol Hill, state legislators may be setting the stage for another showdown between law enforcement and the encamped Occupy Nashville protesters outside their offices.
A bill filed Jan. 17 — by Rep. Eric Watson (R-Cleveland) and Sen. Delores Gresham (R-Somerville) — would make it illegal to “maintain living-quarters” on public property that is not designated for residential use. A violation of the statute would be a Class C misdemeanor and call for an action that will be familiar to protesters, press and casual observers who spent their nights on the plaza three months ago: eviction of people from the property by the appropriate law enforcement agency.
When first they met, the state and the occupiers tangled over the enforcement of a hastily devised overnight curfew, put in place by the Department of General Services and endorsed by the governor.
So far, the Occupy Nashville response to the bill would seem to indicate that such an episode could repeat itself. In a letter outlining their concerns with the proposed legislation, which they’ve urged supporters to sign and send to legislators, the group flatly declares their intentions, should the bill become law.
“However, should HB2638/SB2508 be passed, and be used to evict Occupy Nashville,” the letter’s closing line reads, “I will once again be at the Plaza, willing to risk arrest on behalf of our First Amendment rights.”
Not surprisingly, at least one of the bill’s sponsors said limiting speech is not its aim at all.
“The bill that Rep. Watson and I are bringing has nothing to do with the abridgement of the people’s right of assembly, to the right of speech or to the right of redress of grievances,” said Gresham. “That is not even in our lexicon. But it is clear that Occupy Nashville has been the critical event that sparked the bringing of the bill.”
A subsection of the bill also dictates that a person’s use or assembly on public property should not pose a health hazard or safety threat to other people who use or work on the property. This is a response to reports of sex acts and defecation on the plaza — largely unsubstantiated — that were the subject of much ado the last time around.
For their part, Occupy Nashville representatives have denied any involvement by their members in such acts. Whoever committed them, though, Gresham said her partner in the legislation has firsthand knowledge of the unsavory activities.
“The war stories, if you will, that are in the rumor mill are not necessarily rumor,” Gresham said. “Rep. Watson, whose office overlooks the plaza, has seen some of these egregious acts going on.” Watson, a former sheriff who chairs the House Judiciary Committee where the bill currently resides, could not be reached for comment.
Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought a lawsuit against the governor and others on behalf of Occupy Nashville in October, declined to comment on how the legislation, if passed, would affect the pending federal case. She did say, however, that she’s not confident the law will pass legal muster and expressed a concern about consequences beyond the eviction of Occupy Nashville (along with Occupy groups across the state).
“The bill is problematic, over-broad, vague and constitutionally suspect,” she said. “It seems to outlaw homelessness, which is not something our government can do.”
Gresham said they are considering language that would allow law enforcement to give a warning — say 24 or 48 hours — before forcibly evicting anyone from public grounds. A spokesman for the governor’s office said they’re focused on the rule-making process — as opposed to legislative action — with regards to the issue, but that they are tracking the bill’s language.
As for the bill’s legal strength, Gresham does not share Weinberg’s concern.
“I think working closely with the attorney general’s office — I think the constitutionality will not be in question,” she said.