US appeals court strikes down Tennessee’s controversial ‘mask law’

Two federal judges in Tennessee have issued rulings in cases challenging the state’s new law banning residents from wearing masks during public protests, joining a growing number of others nationwide. The order from the fifth …

Two federal judges in Tennessee have issued rulings in cases challenging the state’s new law banning residents from wearing masks during public protests, joining a growing number of others nationwide.

The order from the fifth circuit court of appeals comes on the heels of a similar decision last week from the ninth circuit court of appeals in Utah.

Tennessee, like many states in the US, allows for masks during protests, meaning such events can be controlled in ways private citizens cannot. But it bars them for any “political demonstration”, which state lawmakers describe as giving the government control over “the use of hands-free devices for communications”.

Attorney General Herbert Slatery of Tennessee has maintained that the legislature has the power to impose such regulation based on “property and safety issues”, and argued that the state has no more right to tell people how to conduct themselves in public than it has to specify the national anthem or the state motto.

“We have a free speech right to express our opinion in public,” he said. “This law is a device to address safety concerns as well as ‘property and safety issues’, such as the potential disruption of public safety agencies and interference with law enforcement and emergency services.”

The law had already been temporarily blocked after it went into effect last month. It would carry a $1,000 fine per day and a $4,000 for repeat offenders, unless they could convince a judge to keep them off the streets.

Now, that ruling by the federal appeals court in Atlanta means it will remain on hold while the fourth circuit appeals court considers a similar case in Pennsylvania, which is also challenging the ban.

“This statute is neither necessary nor warranted by safety concerns,” said Jason Lamey, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. “Especially since you can get out of a protest under this statute and go home, you might be tempted to engage in the protest.”

Even Republican-led state legislators took issue with the tactic. “If [parties are] planning a protest, a free speech rally, anything with a purpose, they need to be able to do it safely,” said state senator Dennis McNutt of Rutherford County. “I mean if you are trying to reroute traffic, everyone would see that, and we don’t need that.”

The law was first enacted in 2017, as part of the state’s response to the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Tennessee chapter of the National Socialist Movement, the largest white nationalist group in the US, has since announced plans to stage rallies in Washington, Nashville and Memphis, in each case seeking permits from local authorities, according to the ACLU.

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