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Republican anti-protest laws sweep across the U.S.

August 13, 2021, 10:34 PM UTC

The nationwide protests of last summer, largely prompted by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, led to an autumn of self-reflection, both at an institutional and personal level. City councils reexamined police budgets, workplaces changed their hiring protocols, and citizens evaluated their own interactions. But at the same time, a significant number of local governments quietly passed legislation to make it more difficult for future protests to occur and to heighten the legal repercussions for individual protesters. 

In early August, lawmakers in Nassau, Long Island, a suburban New York county, approved a proposal that would allow police officers to sue protesters and collect financial damages from them. The bill would make police officers and other first responders a protected class under the county’s Human Rights Law. Protesters could be sued and fined up to $25,000 for “harassing, menacing, or injuring” an officer, and fees would double if that behavior occurred “in the course of participating in a riot.” No other professions are protected under the law. 

Civil rights lawyer Frederick Brewington told reporters last week that the bill violates free speech rights and is clearly intended as retaliation for Black Lives Matter protests. “If you want to shut someone down, take away their livelihood,” he said. “If you want to shut someone down, take away their spirit. This is intended to evoke fear in the community. This is payback. It’s not right. It’s not acceptable, and it is against the law.” 

The bill was vetoed by County Executive Laura Curran, but it could possibly be overturned by the county’s Republican-controlled legislature.

The bill comes as part of a nationwide trend. Eight states have passed legislation cracking down on protesters since last summer, and at least 21 states have similar bills pending, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. 

Nearly 85 state and federal bills have been introduced in 2021 to restrict the right to peacefully assemble, compared with 36 in 2020, the center found. 

Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have all enacted legislation this year that increases penalties for blocking traffic or taking down monuments during a protest or riot.

A law passed in April of 2021 in Lauderdale County, Ala., will allow municipalities to require a permit to protest and charge organizers expansive fees that include “the actual cost of cleanup,” “the actual cost of the use of law enforcement officers,” and “any other actual administrative cost incurred by the municipality.” Local activist groups say the charges are unconstitutional as they violate their right to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Activists also say the bill is targeted retaliation for attempting to remove a Confederate statue known as Eternal Vigil that sits outside a courthouse.

Another bill, passed in Iowa this year, would protect drivers from civil liability if they injure or kill someone who is unlawfully blocking a road during a “protest, demonstration, riot, or unlawful assembly.” In 2020, over 100 protesters were hit by vehicles.  

In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in April that would provide an exemption from civil liability to anyone who injures or kills a protester if the victim was most likely participating in a “riot.” 

“We wanted to make sure that we were able to protect the people of our great state, people’s businesses and property against any type of mob activity or violent assemblies,” said DeSantis, surrounded by law enforcement officers during the public bill signing. 

Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, in April signed HB 1674, which also protects drivers from being held criminally or civilly liable if they injure and kill a person so long as they’re “fleeing from a riot” where they reasonably believe they will be harmed.

A Republican proposal in Indiana would ban anyone convicted of unlawful assembly from holding state employment, including public office. Another proposal in Minnesota would ban anyone convicted of unlawful protesting from receiving student loans, unemployment benefits, or other forms of assistance. 

Republican legislators claim that these bills protect citizens from violence, but the vast majority of protests in the United States are peaceful. More than 96% of last summer’s protests involved no property damage or police injury, and in nearly 98% of protests, no injuries were reported among participants, bystanders, or police, according to analysis by the Washington Post

“This is consistent with the general trend of legislators’ responding to powerful and persuasive protests by seeking to silence them rather than engaging with the message of the protests,” Vera Eidelman, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the New York Times. “If anything, the lesson from the last year, and decades, is not that we need to give more tools to police and prosecutors, it’s that they abuse the tools they already have.”

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