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VOL. 36 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 17, 2012




'Occupy Nashville' bill passes Senate 20-10

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NASHVILLE (AP) - Occupy Nashville protesters say a proposal passed Thursday by the Senate aimed at stopping them from camping overnight at the Capitol complex will not thwart their efforts.

The Senate approved the Republican-backed proposal 20-10. Two Democrats voted for the measure, and 10 against it. The companion bill passed the House 70-26 last week, and that chamber must also approve an amendment that was added.

The main provision of the legislation would make it a misdemeanor to lay down "bedding for the purpose of sleeping" on government-owned land at the Capitol.

It refers to items associated with camping, "including tents, portable toilets, sleeping bags, tarps, stakes, ropes, blankets, propane heaters, cooking equipment and generators."

Protesters have camped at the plaza since early October. At one time there were as many as 60 tents, but that number has dwindled to fewer than 30.

However, the protesters said th ey plan to maintain a presence at the plaza. The group has started signing people up to take shifts of four to eight hours so that someone is on the plaza at all times, protester Jane Steinfels Hussain said.

"The resolve is still there," she said.

Added protester Bill Howell: "We're certainly not going away; still determined."

Under the legislation, violators would be fined as much as $2,500 and face up to nearly a year in jail, which opponents say is excessive.

"This particular legislation targets the legitimate First Amendment protest," said Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis. "Significant change really does not occur in society without a demand from citizens. This is not a time to limit free speech."

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis warned his colleagues they may one day regret the legislation.

"This country was created out of civil unrest," he said. "If the government prevents civil unrest, it will find itself with unc ivil unrest."

Supporters deny the legislation is an attempt to stifle free speech, but is necessary because of criminal activity and lewd behavior at the encampment. They also say it's needed to protect public property.

"No one in this room would deny the right of any person to protest," said Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Somerville Republican and the main sponsor of the proposal. "We have an obligation to manage our public lands properly for everyone, not just a few."

Sen. Roy Herron said the bill's language is too broad and could prohibit some individuals, such as hunters and boy scouts, from cooking in certain areas at the plaza.

"There's a better way to do this," said the Dresden Democrat. "And this isn't it."

However, Sen. Joe Haynes of Goodlettsville was one of the Democrats who voted for the proposal. Haynes said he believes in the right to protest, but that "Occupy Nashville became a lot greater than that."

"It interfered with the rights of other citizens," he said. "It interfered with the function of our employees. They overstayed their welcome. It's time for them to go."

The legislation 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 following a judge's orders and promulgating rules for use of the plaza.

Haslam told reporters last week that the administration is continuing with the rulemaking process, regardless of the legislation. If the bill passes, he said he plans to talk to the state's attorney general about "what the state's rights are at that point."

The amendment that was added to the Senate version on Thursday is a severability clause that states if any part of the legislation is found to be invalid, then "such invalidity shall not affect other provisions or applications" of the proposal.

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