Good-bye Freedom of Speech and the Right to Peaceful Assembly

There are so many things to write about right now, such as the massive leak of CIA documents on Wikileaks, or Trump’s new executive order on immigration, but what I’d like to focus on this week is the numerous laws being proposed in various states, which challenge the right to free speech and peaceful assembly. Republican lawmakers seem to have hit their limit with protests after millions of Americans have taken to the streets in 2016 and early 2017 to express their concern over important issues such as police brutality and the numerous police killings of black people, the illegal construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on Native American land and the contentious election of Donald Trump.

The United States has always touted itself as the land of the free (though this is certainly questionable), yet these proposed laws, if passed, would make the US resemble the dictatorial regimes it has criticised, condemned and even supported over the years.

According to the Washington Post, the number of states that have proposed anti-protest bills has now grown to eighteen. Let’s have a look at what has been proposed so far in some of these states:

Washington state: Protests could be labelled as ‘economic terrorism’.[1] According to the Atlantic Monthly, Senate Bill 5009 is aimed at environmentalists who attempt to block the transport of commercial goods, or tamper with oil pipelines, or interfere with oil and power industry facilities. If passed, this bill would increase sentencing times for those convicted of causing economic disruption.[2] [3]

Minnesota: The house committee led by Republicans have passed a measure “that would allow local governments to sue convicted protestors for the costs of law enforcement and security associated with demonstrations.”[4] They have also proposed a law to go after demonstrators who block traffic.

Iowa: In Iowa protestors who block traffic while demonstrating could face criminal prosecution, imprisonment up to five years and fines up to $7,500.

Missouri: Those convicted of wearing masks, hoods or other coverings to disguise their identity during a protest that has been classified as unlawful could spend up to one year in prison.

Virginia: Right now those in Virginia who continue to protest after being told to disburse can face a fine of up to $500. Should the newly proposed legislation pass, protestors could face fines of up to $2,500 and one year in prison. [5]

Colorado: A bill put forward by Republican state Senator Sonnenberg targets environmental protesters who attempt to, “’alter, obstruct, interrupt, or interfere with the action of any equipment used or associated with oil or gas gathering operations.’”[6]   Currently such acts of civil disobedience are classified as misdemeanors, though under the proposed law they would classified as a felony with heavy fines of up to $100,000 and prison sentences of up to one and a half years. Additionally, oil and gas companies could also be given the right to go after protesters, not just the state.

Arizona: Though bill SC1142 has been passed by the Republican state senators, it may not make it through the Arizona House. SC1142 is a very broad bill that if enacted would not only allow the state to criminally prosecute those who participate in demonstrations that become violent and to seize their property, but it would also allow police to arrest people for even planning to demonstrate because the protest they are planning may become violent. This bill is clearly designed to intimidate people and scare them enough so that they are too afraid to exercise their First Amendment rights.[7]

Indiana: Republican lawmakers would like to give police the right to use “’’any means necessary’” to remove demonstrators who hold up traffic, which could mean that law enforcement officials would have the right to shoot and even kill protestors who take to the streets.[8]

North Carolina: House Bill 249 put forward by a number of Republicans seeks to create the new crime of economic terrorism, as well as significantly increasing penalties for those who block roads during protests that are considered unlawful or are classed as a riot. According to the bill, one commits economic terrorism when one purposefully and with malicious intent ‘impedes or disrupts the regular course of business’ and causes damages of more than $1,000.[9]  Another bill put forward by Republican Senator Dan Bishop, Senate Bill 229, would extend protections against assault already in place for current state officials to those who have also left office. The current law ‘makes it a felony to assault or threaten legislative, executive, and judicial officials of the State in retaliation for the exercise of official duties.’ The new bill, which is in response to former governor Pat McCrory being heckled on his way to Trump’s inaugural festivities, would extend this protection for up to one year after leaving office.[10] Critics of the bill argue that it is just a way to shield former state officials from public criticism.[11]

North Dakota and Florida: The most troubling proposed laws are the ones in these states which would allow drivers to run over and even kill protestors who get in their way of using the road, as long as it was not the driver’s intention to kill the protestor(s).[12] [13] [14] [15] It can be quite difficult to prove one’s intent, which could very well mean that if these laws pass drivers could quite literally get away with murder.

While I do not condone violent protests or rioting, the American people must be able to gather peacefully, participate in acts of civil disobedience if necessary, and exercise their right to free speech in a functioning democracy. Any laws that intimidate people or make the penalties for participating in their legal right to free speech and freedom to assemble, are dangerous. When the right to criticise or stand up to the government or private corporations is taken away from the people they are no longer free.

















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