At least two known white nationalist conferences have been held this year at Tennessee state parks.
Both organizations — American Renaissance and Stormfront — are designated as white nationalist hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and have hosted their annual gatherings for several years now in state-owned facilities.
All those years, it was a matter of public record when and at which state park building such conferences took place.
But since April, that has no longer been the case in Tennessee, where the General Assembly passed House Bill 312, legislation that now makes confidential “personal identifying and financial information of guests at state parks,” according to the bill’s description.
This summer, the USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee requested from the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation, which oversees the state park system, a list of individuals and organizations that have reserved state park meeting spaces in recent years.
In denying the request, TDEC pointed to the legislation that was passed this spring, maintaining that the bill also retroactively applied to old state park records.
HB 312 does not specify that it applies to reservation information that was public prior to the bill taking effect.
Its sponsor, Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, described the legislation as an “administrative bill” from state officials, and had been under the impression that the legislation was intended to protect guests at the state-run hotels and campgrounds from identity theft upon making their reservations.
“There was fear that our patrons to the parks, that their Social Security numbers, their private data could be breached and someone’s identity could be stolen,” Hawk said.
When asked whether the bill was intended to also prevent the public from requesting basic information on which groups are renting state park meeting spaces, Hawk said “it was never described to (him) in that way.”
Hawk said he was unaware that white nationalist groups such as American Renaissance and Stormfront had been using the park facilities to hold conferences in recent years.
“I don’t think that’s even been on the General Assembly’s radar screen,” Hawk said. “I don’t think it’s been on the administration’s radar screen.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Haslam said the bill was introduced at the request of TDEC.
In response to questions about what prompted TDEC to request the legislation, department spokesman Eric Ward said that guests providing information to state parks for reservations “should have the same privacy they have when visiting private venues.”
The governor’s office didn’t directly respond to a question about whether the public should have access to a list of individuals and organizations renting meeting spaces at Tennessee state park facilities.
In response to another question about whether Haslam had concerns about white supremacist groups using state facilities to promote their ideology and if the state should intervene, spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said that the governor “made it clear last month” when he released a statement ahead of a White Lives Matter rally in Shelbyville.
The day before the Oct. 28 white nationalist event, Haslam announced that white supremacists were “not welcome in Tennessee.”
Source: USA Today (Natalie Allison)
Photo Credit: www.tennessean.com
Photo Credit: Religion News Service
Photo Credit: USA Today