Tennessee passed some legislation yesterday in what appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to come down hard on protestors in the capitol. The most notable is that it is now a felony (with severe penalties) to erect a tent on state property between the hours of 10PM and 7AM. Is there any mechanism to prevent the legislation of arbitrarily severe punishments for crimes like this or is there precedent for overturning something like this in the court system?
The law is part of a larger bill modifying punishments for various crimes. For example it increases the penalty for vandalizing government property, creates offenses for assault on a first responder carrying out their duties (depending on the severity of the assault), increases the penalty for aggravated rioting, obstruction of highways and so on. It also clarifies that being assembling or being present at the scene of a riot is not an offense. The only new crime created is assault on a first responder. Unauthorized camping on state property was already a crime: this is an increase in the penalty for committing that crime. It does have a requirement for notice and continued violation for 24 hours, unlike vandalism where if you do the deed, you can be arrested.
The courts have not held that the First Amendment protects the right to trespass, assault or commit vandalism. The only viable avenue for a legal challenge is that the punishment is cruel and unusual (too severe). A change from Class A misdemeanor to Class E felony is the smallest increment in penalty. The state will argue that the increase in penalty is necessary to maintain public order, and that it is not arbitrary or capricious, because there have been many recent violations of the law. In general, when laws are frequently disobeyed, it is legal for the government to increase the penalty for breaking the law in order to achieve compliance.