Does Tennessee need an anti-mask law?

Johnson City Press • Jan 27, 2020 at 6:00 AM

This month, some of our nearby state legislators filed a bill aimed at protesters they say may intend to commit crimes.

Rep. Bud Hulsey and Sen. Jon Lundberg filed the bills in their respective houses that would make it a Class A misdemeanor in Tennessee to wear a mask or hood on public or private property without permission from the property owner. Hulsey withdrew the legislation last week to retool it after some questions about unintended consequences, but he hopes to reintroduce it before the end of this legislative session.

After speaking with police officials in the state, the lawmakers said the intent of the proposed law is to prevent people from hiding their identities and committing vandalism or assault during large protests and demonstrations.

Some worry, however, that it and anti-mask laws like it will be used to discourage lawful speech and protests protected by the U.S. Constitution. The withdrawn bill was written to protect people wearing costumes for holidays and stage productions, but those allowances have been criticized as not broad enough.

Anti-mask laws have been used in the past to prevent raids by the Ku Klux Klan, but they have a spotty record in the courts. Some have been upheld as constitutional, while others, when found to be too broad, have been struck down.

With cameras and facial recognition technology growing more prevalent, forcing protesters to leave their faces uncovered could make individuals targets of police activity or opposing political groups. Already, photos of protest groups have been crowdsourced to discover protesters’ identities, then the named protesters have been harassed online, in their jobs and at their homes.

It’s a contentious issue, so we’d like to ask you. Does Tennessee need an anti-mask law? Can such a law be written to prevent crime while protecting constitutional rights?

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