NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam's administration is imposing a nighttime curfew on the Capitol complex in response to what it calls deteriorating safety conditions surrounding anti-Wall Street protests.
The Department of General Services announced Thursday that the Capitol grounds, the War Memorial Courtyard and the Legislative Plaza in downtown Nashville will be closed to those without specific permission each night between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. State workers began putting up signs around the plaza about the curfew Thursday afternoon.
Spokeswoman Lola Potter said the policy wouldn't be enforced until Friday, which meant Occupy Nashville protesters wouldn't be made to disband their three-week-old encampment on Legislative Plaza until a day later than they expected.
The plaza is a frequent cut-through for pedestrians and adjacent to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center and War Memorial Auditorium, where nighttime events often end after the 10 p.m. curfew.
Potter said the policy is not meant to affect people "strolling across the plaza" after a play or concert.
"If you're not creating a disturbance, no one's going to bother you," she said.
The General Services Department said it decided to add to its policy for permitting and use of the plaza, War Memorial Courtyard and Capitol grounds because "criminal activity and deteriorating sanitary conditions over the past several days on Legislative Plaza have created an environment that is unsafe for the protestors, state employees and everyone who works, lives and enjoys downtown."
However, protester Eva Watler said "health and safety ... doesn't trump our First Amendment rights."
"Legislative Plaza is the people's plaza," said the 34-year-old massage therapist. "It's where people assemble as their First Amendment right."
Before the announcement of the curfew, state officials told the protesters they had until 8 p.m. Thursday to vacate the premises or be arrested. Watler and other protesters said they plan to hold their ground and face possible arrests on Friday.
"We're fully prepeared for it," she said. "We have a great legal team. We shall not be moved."
Protester Albert Rankin said earlier Thursday that the group would face arrests with "no hostility whatsoever," wanting to avoid a repeat of Oakland, Calif., where an Iraq war veteran suffered a fractured skull in a scuffle with police, and in Atlanta where SWAT teams arrested protesters.
"We always remain peaceful here," said Rankin, 25, who has been unemployed for a little more than a year. "If we can get enough flower donations, we're going to give flowers to the police as they come to arrest us."
The new policy requires groups to submit applications to conduct rallies outside of the curfew hours that will include use fees and security and liability insurance. The rules specifically ban "overnight occupancy."
The policy also makes no specific exemptions from the curfew, which House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville described as an overreaction by the Republican governor.
"I'm stunned that he's done that, to be honest with you," Turner said. "We've had a history of people having pretty much a free reign down there."
Turner noted that there was no similar response when anti-income tax protests of a decade ago escalated into a rock being thrown through the governor's window and demonstrators pounding on the doors of legislative chambers while lawmakers were working inside.
Police last removed protesters from the legislative office complex in March, when people were arrested for disrupting a Senate Commerce Committee meeting and resisting arrest. They were later acquitted.
Haslam said at the time that he supports the right to protest, but that he agrees with removing demonstrators from government buildings if they disrupt official business.