Three Reasons State Legislators Should Vote “NO!” on Anti-Protest Bills

by David Myers, Legal Research Intern, Amnesty International USA

Over approximately the last two months, there has been a surge of legislation introduced in statehouses across the country that would directly impact the rights to freedom of expression and assembly. Some of these bills appear to be reactions to the protests at Standing Rock, ND against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Others appear to be reactions to Black Lives Matter protests against police use of lethal force. Still others appear to be general reactions to the wave of political protests that have followed President Trump’s inauguration and in response to his agenda. All of the bills, however, would punish protesters and have the potential to chill individuals’ exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and assembly –rights enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Arts. 19, 20) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Arts. 19, 21).

Such legislation has already been introduced in eighteen states and there is every reason to expect more. While the bills vary in terms of their subject matter and approach, several themes have emerged in the arguments in favor, and in defense, of these bills. It is important that these arguments are rebutted because they’re wrong and, more importantly, because human rights are at stake. Without further ado, here are the three most prominent myths surrounding anti-protest bills:

1) No need to worry. These bills only target the bad guys.

These bills don’t target the ‘bad guys’ — they target human rights. This is perhaps the worst kind of argument for any legislation that touches on human rights. Legislation is often written in broad terms, susceptible to overreach and abuse. This is certainly the case here. Many of the bills rely on overbroad language and subjective standards that would allow them to be used to target peaceful protesters. Moreover, some of the proposed bills would expose peaceful protesters to liability because of the bad acts of others. For example, an Arizona bill that was recently defeated would have made protest organizers liable for damages in relation to any protests that turn violent.

Such legislation, even where it might cover actors responsible for wrongdoing, would have a disproportionate chilling effect on individuals’ exercise of their rights to peaceful protest. Our society is made stronger by robust civic engagement, including through political protests and demonstrations. These bills would, in effect, discourage that.

2) But this isn’t about limiting free expression– it’s about protecting people, and nobody has the right to cause harm or be disruptive.

This is an argument that is frequently seen in defense of bills that further penalize acts of civil disobedience. For example, Florida State Senator George Gainer, the sponsor of a bill that would make it a crime for protesters to block traffic, recently said, “Nobody has a right to endanger their lives or somebody else, or create a disruption, so that we have traffic problems and are putting a lot of folks in hardship trying to go somewhere and do their business.”

Many of the proposed bills are concerned with obstruction of traffic or public roadways by protesters. Clearly these can be sources of frustration for those affected. But let’s be clear — the First Amendment and international law guarantee certain rights, such as the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Bills like Senator Gainer’s simply strike the wrong balance of interests between the limitation of what are undoubtedly rights vital to our society and an interference with privileges that, in most cases, will amount to nothing more than a temporary inconvenience.

3) These bills are necessary to ensure law and order.

Many of the sponsors of these bills would have you believe that our country had descended into violence and chaos as a result of people exercising their rights to protest. Even if we were to assume that there is a real public safety concern to address, these bills would still be offensive and unacceptable on their face because they are so extreme. They exhibit vindictiveness and a disdain for those who would exercise their human rights that is inappropriate and harmful to our society. No legislator can point to a demonstrable threat to public safety that would justify a bill in Iowa (SF 111) that would punish someone with up to five years in prison and a $7,500 fine for blocking a highway, or one in Arkansas (SB 550) that would punish someone with up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine for “mass picketing.” Neither can legislators in states like Florida (SB 1096) or Tennessee (HB 0668) demonstrate a need for bills that would specifically shield motorists who injure or kill protesters.

Amnesty International USA is committed to working to defeat these bills. If you would like to be involved in that effort, please e-mail hrd@aiusa.org. In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) have also been working to defeat, and to provide updates and analysis on, these bills.

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