ACLU-TN focused on a wide range of civil liberties and civil rights issues during the first year of the 112th Tennessee General Assembly.
Policing and Criminal Justice
Alongside our partners, ACLU-TN continued to push aggressively for fundamental changes to the criminal justice system this session.
- In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, legislators from both parties recognized the need for significant policing reform. With a collective budget of more than $100 billion a year, America’s police departments are responsible for too much violence and abuse, for which there is too little oversight or accountability. We supported a bipartisan bill, SB 1380/HB 1406, that banned no-knock search warrants, required departments to adopt duty to intervene policies, and increased reporting obligations for use-of-force incidents. ACLU-TN members and supporters made this bill a top priority during our first ever Virtual Day on The Hill. This legislation is a modest but important step toward improving police practices.
Other victories included:
- passage of legislation that improved the standard for intellectual disability in capital cases (SB 1349/HB 1062),
- the defeat of a bill that would have criminalized unhoused people in Tennessee (SB 1610/HB 978),
- the passage of legislation that closed a dangerous loophole that allowed for juveniles to be held in solitary confinement (SB 383/HB 1126), and
- the passage of two major pieces of legislation that sought to provide more alternatives to incarceration and improve the reentry process for formerly incarcerated people (SB 767/HB 784 and SB 768/HB 785).
Despite reform efforts, too many legislators remain convinced that more offenses and longer sentences will improve life for Tennesseans. ACLU-TN recently released a report on legislation that would increase criminal penalties. We found that if all the proposed bills still pending as of May 2 were to become law, incarceration costs would have increased by nearly $60 million annually and resulted in thousands of years of additional incarceration. By the end of the session, not all of these bills had passed, but many remain active for next session and, more importantly, they illustrate the need to continue to show lawmakers that increasing criminal penalties just wastes taxpayer dollars without increasing public safety. We continue to advocate for a reduction in mass incarceration.
Tennessee’s lawmakers targeted transgender students repeatedly this session, stripping them of fundamental rights and access to crucial healthcare. Despite the efforts of ACLU-TN and our coalition partners, lawmakers succeeded in passing a slate of hateful bills, including:
- Banning middle- and high-school trans athletes from playing sports in accordance with their gender identity (SB 228/HB 3). If you are the parent of a child being excluded from participating in school sports due to gender identity, please contact us at https://action.aclu.org/legal-intake/aclu-tn-legal-intake-form.
- Authorizing any student or employee who believes they have been in a restroom or locker room at the same time as a transgender student or employee to file a lawsuit against that school, which encourages schools to prohibit student use of bathrooms and locker rooms that match the student’s gender identity (SB 1367/HB 1233)
- Requiring businesses to post offensive signs outside of restrooms to “notify” the public that people may use a restroom in accordance with their gender identity (SB 1224/HB 1182)
- Requiring schools to notify parents of curriculum concerning sexual orientation or gender identity and allowing parents to opt their children out of the lessons (SB 1229/HB 529)
We will be challenging some of these offensive, harmful laws in court, and advocating for the repeal of others in sessions to come.
With nationwide attempts to ban critical race theory, Tennessee state lawmakers prioritized an education bill that censors academic discussions about American history, race, and gender in Tennessee public-school classrooms.
- SB 623/HB 580 outlines a series of 14 “concepts” that cannot be taught in the classroom, including that “this state or the United States is fundamentally… racist or sexist.” The bill also requires “impartial” instruction on our nation’s history of racial oppression. If teachers violate this vague requirement, intentionally or not, they risk the state withholding funding to their schools.
ACLU-TN sent a letter to Governor Lee urging him to veto this bill and also joined with partners in sending another veto letter to the governor. We also participated in multiple media interviews and a tweetstorm to raise awareness and urge Governor Lee to veto the bill. Local organizations, state representatives, activists, and community members took to Twitter to voice their disapproval of this bill, which seeks to erase America’s complex and painful history of racism and oppression from Tennessee classrooms. Ultimately, state lawmakers took us backward in the fight for racial equality with the passing of this legislation. We are currently researching our legal options.
ACLU-TN advocates for reduced government surveillance of Tennesseans’ lives, especially as technology improves and makes it easier for police to spy on us. This legislative session, we actively opposed two surveillance bills:
- an expansion in police capacity to use drones to watch community members (SB 258/HB 924), which ultimately passed, and
- the creation of a program to install invasive license plate readers across the state (SB 1571/HB 1212), which was deferred to summer study.
We will continue to oppose the expansion of surveillance technology in Tennessee.
Free Speech and Protest
Lawmakers continued to attack the First Amendment this session, proposing legislation that would have turned protest in our state into a felony if you blocked anyone’s way, and also given drivers immunity from prosecution for hitting demonstrators. ACLU-TN advocated heavily against the bill – mobilizing members, working in coalition, and testifying in opposition – and successfully slowed down this undemocratic legislation (SB 843/HB 513). It will be heard again next year, when we will continue to fight against its passage.
The majority party launched repeated attacks on the rule of law in Tennessee during this session.
- First, lawmakers proposed removing Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle of Davidson County after her ruling in a successful ACLU-TN lawsuit to expand absentee voting rights in Tennessee (HR 23). This measure failed.
- The legislature then introduced a partisan bill to create a new statewide court, which would wrench authority over constitutional challenges from the Davidson County Chancery Court (SB 868/HB 1130). This bill ultimately passed in an amended form that creates a new legal process for constitutional challenges to state laws, requiring that the Tennessee Supreme Court appoint judges from each of the state’s three grand divisions to hear these cases.
While it stops short of creating a new court, this new panel of judges will hear all constitutional challenges, including those which may involve redistricting. The effect of the amended bill – undermining fair and independent courts – remains the same. This bill reflects an effort to politicize the judiciary and devalue the role of the courts in our state.
We will continue to oppose legislative efforts to undermine the separation of powers and weaken the courts.
The Bottom Line
With your help, we secured many victories and defended against numerous attacks on our civil liberties and civil rights this session. ACLU-TN supporters participated in our first ever Lobby Day, and throughout the session people contacted legislators thousands of times, urging them to uphold the Constitution and to keep Tennessee fair and equal for all. Without your voices, we would not have been as successful – thank you!