Title: Civil Rights; A New Wave of “Anti – Protest” and “Anti – Riot” Bills Threaten First Amendment Rights In The United States; April 2021
Policy Summary: During the 2021 legislative session “anti – protest” and “anti – riot” bills have been introduced in a number of states across the United States. The bills vary in a number of key features but it is clear that these bills are being put forward in response to the protests last year against police misconduct and institutional racism. There have been more than 80 anti – protest bills introduced this year alone. Here is a list of the most noteworthy of those state bills.
On April 19, 2021 in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis (R) signed the Combatting Public Disorder Act. That act creates a new charge of “aggravated rioting” which is focused on acts committed during a declared riot such as blocking a highway or the threat of force against a bystander. The bill also enhances the penalties for battery and burglary charges during a riot. Additionally, a mandatory sentence can be imposed on a person convicted of battery against a police officer during a riot.
In Texas, Senate Bill 92 proposes that if a group of seven or more people causes property damage that all members of the group of people can be held liable for the property damage even if a person did not intend to cause or actually cause the damage.
In the Minnesota State Senate, SF 2381 proposes that anyone convicted of an unlawful protest violation would become ineligible from receiving student loans and state financial assistance aid such as state unemployment benefits.
Indiana Senate Bill 34 proposes that any person convicted of unlawful assembly would be barred from working in a state or local government position.
Policy Analysis: Anti – protest and anti – riot bills have experienced a surge in the last few years. The current batch of bills from the 2021 legislative sessions have come in the wake of incidents where people have protested against police misconduct and racially motivated incidents against minority communities but they have also been tried in other scenarios. In response to protests against the Keystone XL pipeline a number of states proposed bills that sought to penalize those who protested against the pipeline. A rationale often used for these bills against environmental protestors is for a need to protect the oil and gas industry. With these new anti – protest and anti – riot bills a similar rationale is being used in that there is a need to protect law enforcement, historical monuments and property. But in their attempt to make these bills about protection of life and property these politicians are ignoring the constitutional concerns that these bills are running up against.
The common problem running through nearly all of these bills are that they run afoul of the First Amendment’s protections against abridging the freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble. Taking the right to freedom of speech, what a number of these bills would do is that they would “chill” a person’s right to protest which is a recognized form of speech. People would be much more hesitant to engage in a protest on an important public issue if there are unrelated consequences for attending a protest. A person can find himself or herself disqualified for educational loans and unemployment benefits. So instead of risking those benefits they may decide that speaking up might not be worth it. They can find themselves disqualified from holding a government position in the future. And they can also find themselves civilly liable for thousands of dollars of property damage when they may in fact not have intended or participated in destruction of property. The message being sent is that speaking up and voicing an opinion is not worth the time and effort. This a horrible message to send as the exchange of ideas and speaking freely is a valued American tradition. States should be encouraging speech and the exchange of ideas instead of enacting restrictions that stifle the exercise of speech or enacting protections for those that seek to physically harm protestors (no liability if a driver rams a protestor with his car) as many of these bills do.
Another common thread to these new bills is that they are directed at controlling the violent and destructive elements that, unfortunately, have become associated with protests. However, the U.S. Crisis Monitor examined data from 2020 and found that of the 7,750 protests from the summer of 2020, 93% were neither violent nor destructive. Of course, there were incidents of property damage at a number of protests but protests have not been overwhelmingly violent or destructive as these bills claim. The threat of violence or destruction is being put forth as a looming threat ready to explode when that is not the case at all. The bills are more likely trying to diminish the messages of protestors by painting them as something they are not – destructive and violent – in the hopes that the rest of the citizenry will side against the protestors without examining the merits of their message.
While Florida’s bill has already been enacted into law, the anti – protest and anti – riot bills in other states should be closely scrutinized for the effects that may have on the rights being exercised under the First Amendment by those who are marching in the streets to voice their concerns. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
International Center for Non – Profit Law – infopage tracking progress of anti – protest bills around U.S.
First Amendment Watch – infopage with analysis and news of anti – protest bills.
This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact Rod@USResistnews.org.