‘Undemocratic’ Anti-Protest Bills Threaten Free Speech, U.N. Experts Warn

Hundreds of protesters demonstrate in northwest D.C. between the White House and Capitol against President Trump's Muslim immigration ban on Jan. 29, 2017. (Mark Mahoney/The Washington Informer)
Hundreds of protesters demonstrate in northwest D.C. between the White House and Capitol against President Trump's Muslim immigration ban on Jan. 29, 2017. (Mark Mahoney/The Washington Informer)

Following Donald Trump’s presidential win, lawmakers in at least 19 states have introduced legislation to restrict the right to protest, even making it legal to run over protesters blocking traffic, or allowing officers to clear the road by “any means necessary.”

Maina Kiai and David Kaye, U.N. experts on freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, warn the trend in such state bills is incompatible with international human rights, and ending peaceful protests infringes upon U.S. constitutional rights.

“The trend threatens to jeopardize one of the United States’ constitutional pillars: free speech,” Kiai and Kaye said in a recent statement sent to U.S. authorities.

“From the Black Lives Matter movement, to the environmental and Native American movements in opposition to the Dakota Access oil pipeline, and the Women’s Marches, individuals and organizations across [American] society have mobilized in peaceful protests.”

Bills in Republican-governed states like Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri and North Dakota were drafted with the intent of curbing protests but do not specifically use the word “protest” in the documents.

For example, in January, North Dakota lawmakers introduced House Bill 1203, which states that unintentionally running over a person obstructing traffic can be lawful:

“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a driver of a motor vehicle who unintentionally causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway, is not guilty of an offense.”

According to the Bismarck Tribune, Rep. Keith Kempenich (R-Bowman), a co-sponsor of the bill, admitted it was created in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in southern Morton County. Native Americans led the protests.

“It’s shifting the burden of proof from the motor vehicle driver to the pedestrian,” Kempenich said.

The bill was voted down 40-51 by House lawmakers in February.

In Indiana, Senate Bill 285, still pending before the House, has a provision that allows law enforcement officials to “use any means necessary to clear the roads of people unlawfully obstructing vehicular traffic.”

In Iowa, Senate File 111 would subject protesters who block traffic to felony charges. And in Florida, protesters blocking traffic would be faced with a misdemeanor of the second-degree charge under Senate Bill 1096. Under certain circumstances, the bill would also exempt motorists from liability for injuring or killing a person interfering with traffic.

One Missouri bill proposes a prison term of up to seven years for “unlawful obstruction of traffic.”

“When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press,” Sen. McCain said.

In Minnesota, where protests took place following the police-related death of Philando Castile, a proposed bill could have the effect of criminalizing peaceful protesters at demonstrations that turn violent or result in property damage — even if those protesters did not personally participate in the violence or property damage.

“We call on the U.S. authorities, at the federal and state level, to refrain from enacting legislation that would impinge on the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, expression and opinion,” Kaye and Kiai said.

The experts also said there was no such thing as a violent protest, only violent protesters.

“One person’s decision to resort to violence does not strip other protesters of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly,” the letter states.

“Peaceful assembly is a fundamental right, not a privilege, and the government has no business imposing a general requirement that people get permission before exercising that right.”

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