By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - Many anti-Wall Street protesters in Nashville began to pack up their tents and leave their Legislative Plaza campground after the Tennessee House of Representatives on Thursday voted to outlaw living on state property not designated as residential.
The Senate is expected to pass a companion measure next week to evict the so-called "Occupy" protesters.
While admitting that the protesters' Nashville campground was "the impetus" for the bill, F. Brent Leatherwood, spokesman for the House Republican majority, said care was taken "to make sure it doesn't target one particular group and one particular area."
Lawmakers cited incidents of public sex acts and one camper accidentally urinating on a legislative staffer.
Rep. Barrett Rich, a Republican and a supporter of the bill, said that while the First Amendment does give Americans the right to assemble and express their views at Legislative Plaza, "you do not have a First Amendment right to sleep."
Occupy Nashville protester Lisa Leeds said that the First Amendment does guarantee people the right to file grievances against the government and "I'm filing a grievance to my government. They are wrong."
The Occupy movement began when protesters set up camp in New York's Zuccotti Park on September 17, sparking demonstrations across the United States and elsewhere in the world. The protesters criticized what they view as growing economic inequality in the United States. A rallying cry has been that 1 percent of the population have too much of the nation's wealth and the remaining 99 percent are disadvantaged.
But the eviction of protesters from Wall Street and public spaces in other U.S. cities in November and December have made the protests less visible. Earlier this month, police cleared bedding and tents from the Washington, D.C. "Occupy" protest site near the White House, enforcing a no-camping rule at a public square.
The Occupy Nashville encampment began October 8, and there were early efforts by authorities to clear the protesters from the property.
An evening curfew was enacted and twice that month, protesters were evicted from their campground by state police. Both times, a judge refused to charge them and said they couldn't legally be removed from the plaza.
The federal judge later agreed with an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop the curfew and the arrests.
At the height of the Nashville protest, there were about 60 tents. There were about 30 tents as of Thursday, before the House passed the eviction bill.
(Reporting By Tim Ghianni; Editing by Mary Wisniewski)