For the past 4 months starting from May, BLM protests and riots have been the brunt of the media’s interest. As of August 13, 2020, protesters in Nashville, Tennessee, have camped outside of the Capitol building for 61 days straight.
The coverage of the protests by mainstream digital and broadcast media have heavily emphasized the violence that erupts during these protests rather than the very substance of the protests. However, citizen journalism via the Internet by people who were present at these protests all over the country have proven that most of these protests around the US have actually started out peaceful.
Yet, it is no news that reporters are more likely to report on news that the consumers want to hear. This is mostly juicy hot takes and scandals. By this measure, it would be more lucrative for news media outlets to report on the violence than the peaceful protests.
As of August 12, the Tennessee legislature revised certain criminal laws that include punishments slated for vandalism, riots, camping on state grounds, obstruction of traffic and other public violent offenses. This is known as Tennessee’s SB 8005/ HB 8005 . On August 20, Gov. Bill Lee signed this bill into law.
How does this new law affect the ongoing protests? Well, Tennessee’s new law actually increases penalties, fines and jail time for common protest/riot activities. For instance, camping overnight on state grounds has become a felony as a result of the new law passed. Furthermore, aggravated rioting under this law is considered as a Class C Felony.
Aggravated riot is defined as participating in disorderly conduct with four or more people, intending to commit a crime or violence. Someone can also be charged with aggravated riot if during the protest/riot, he or she is armed or knows an armed participant who intends to use a weapon. If a protester in Tennessee is convicted of aggravated riot, he or she becomes a felon.
Additionally, this new law states that aggravated criminal trespass, if committed on residential premises of law enforcement officers, judges and or appointed/elected officials, with intent to harass is a felony. In most states, this is a misdemeanor. Also, under this law, inciting a riot is a class A misdemeanor. It is also important to note that ordinarily, two misdemeanor convictions with a third allegation equal a felony. Lastly, the new law also penalizes paid groups.
In Tennessee, if you are convicted of a felony, your voting rights are taken. They can only be restored if your convictions are expunged.
It is quite obvious that the revision of these laws was done at a time to suppress the spread and continuation of these mass movements in the state of Tennessee. Basically, the Tennessee government has borrowed a leaf from the old book. It was common during the segregation era in the South for lawmakers to use criminal justice laws to suppress protests.
This brings me to the concept of the Chilling Effect. The Chilling Effect refers to the deterring of free speech and association rights protected by the First Amendment as a result of government laws or actions that appear to target expression.
The First Amendment of the United States protects free speech, freedom of the press, the right to assemble, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Basically, the right to protest is protected under the First Amendment. Voting is a form speech and therefore also a right of the First Amendment.
Tennessee’s new law would ultimately create a Chilling Effect because it deters free speech and association rights because it suppresses citizens expression with the threat of possible disenfranchisement. Furthermore, groups and individuals who wish to register as voters in Tennessee would be deterred from attending protests that spread awareness on the grievances of the law enforcement agencies on minorities in order not to risk losing their voting rights and avoid the harsh penalties.