The enactment of a new law in Tennessee that increases criminal penalties for protest-related conduct, including up to six years imprisonment for illegally camping on state land, represents a blow to the free speech and assembly rights of all Tennesseeans, PEN America said today.

Last Thursday, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed Senate Bill 8005 into law. The bill creates or expands on several criminal penalties for unlawful conduct related to protest, including by making unauthorized camping on state property into a Class E Felony, punishable by up to six years in prison. Under Tennessee law, a felony conviction results in the loss of a person’s right to vote. The law goes into effect October 1.

“This is an anti-protest law, plain and simple,” said James Tager, PEN America’s deputy director of free expression policy and research. “There is only one thing that this bill would effectively accomplish, and that is to reduce the legal space for protesters to make their voices heard. The fact that this law could be used to effectively strip the right to vote from protesters—the very people assembling to assert their rights and to demand action from their elected officials—demonstrates the anti-democratic nature of this legislation.”

Governor Lee signed the bill against the backdrop of months of protests outside the Tennessee State Capitol, led by activists calling for criminal justice reforms. Governor Lee has refused to meet with these activists. 

“This new law fits squarely within the alarming trend of state-level officials crafting bills that are inherently injurious to our First Amendment rights, in direct response to protests, primarily those led by people of color,” Tager said. “To Tennessee officials, we say: Stop making it easier to arrest protesters. It is your job to safeguard constitutional rights, not tread on them.”

The law is the newest in a years-long trend of state-level officials across the country crafting legislation that limits the lawful space for protesters. In a report released earlier this year, PEN America documented and analyzed over 100 such bills, concluding that such bills were commonly “unnecessary, overbroad, and in many cases, aimed at deterring specific protest movements,” particularly movements led by people of color.