Does A New Tennessee Law Regulating Protests At Businesses Infringe On Free Speech?

A bill expected to be signed by the governor soon would create a database in which employers can keep track of protests on private property. (Kevin Smith/http://commons.wikimedia.org)

A bill expected to be signed by the governor soon would create a database in which employers can keep track of protests on private property. (Kevin Smith/http://commons.wikimedia.org)

A little-noticed bill that passed the General Assembly last week is seen by detractors as an attack on free speech. But proponents, including business interest groups, say it’ll help bolster criminal trespassing prosecutions.

Starting next year, businesses can pay a fee to register protests with a database, controlled by the Tennessee Secretary of State.

What does this mean?

Here’s a hypothetical: Let’s say PETA protests at Wal-Mart, which joins the state database by paying a fee. If PETA protests again, the police response will be quicker, swifter and will be conducted with less fuss.

At least that’s what the bill’s backer,  Rep. Andy Holt, hopes. Though trespassing on private property is already a crime, Holt says, under this measure, police will give protesters less leeway.

“The purpose of this act is to protect private property owners,” he said.

A nearly identical bill was passed by the Arizona State Legislature in 2011. Last year, a federal judge struck it down for curtailing free speech.

The bill was originally aimed at union picketing. It had the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The union language was stripped out, and Holt has maintained that the bill is “not anti-union, but anti-criminal activity.”

Those pushing back against the bill say it could create a sort of pay-to-play criminal justice system in which paying companies receive some kind of super-response to trespassing.

Among the opponents to the bill is land use attorney Jason Holleman**, who says the soon-to-be law is a “solution in search of a problem.”

“I think that we get into dangerous territory, as we saw with this debate, when we try to file bills to limit First Amendment speech, particularly when it’s not addressing a problem that we have in Tennessee,” Holleman said.

It now awaits Governor Bill Haslam’s signature.

(It’s not the same bill, which the attorney general came out against, that would’ve outlawed mass picketing by unions outright. That bill was sent to a summer study session.)

**Correction:  In a earlier version of this story, WPLN referred to Holleman as a lobbyist.  He is not a registered lobbyist, but rather a land use attorney who testified against the measure before lawmakers.

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