SB 171 Anti-Protest Bill Undermines Freedom Of Speech, Assembly, and Democracy

SB 171 the so-called ” Safe Communities Act” sponsored by State Senator, Randy Robertson (R-Cataula) has crossed over and is in the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee. 

It is an anti-protest and anti-free speech bill with severe penalties of up to five years in prison and massive fines for violations. It provides an affirmative defense of immunity to people that cause harm or kill protesters. This is similar to the “Stand Your Ground ” federal law that allows people to kill if they feel in danger.

The bill requires a permit for two people or more to assembly, makes it a felony to block a highway or deface a monument even with chalk that washes away easily, lets people sue local governments if protests turn violent, and has a racketeering provision that is so vague until people that organize a peaceful assembly or post the event on Facebook may receive racketeering charges if violence breaks out.

“The Georgia bill creates an affirmative defense to excuse the injury or death of a protester who’s obstructing a highway. Affirmative defense will roll back the historic progress that was made last year with the repeal of Citizen’s Arrest.  A law that similarly condoned vigilante violence against people living in Georgia,” Kaitlyn Barnes, Public Policy Counsel, Southern Center for Human Rights said in a Senate Judicial Hearing.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)  tracks a lot of hate groups like the Neo-Nazis and Boogaloo Boys who are anti-law enforcement and are known for starting riots and fires. These are the type of groups that seek out and provoke violence and to give them an affirmative defense is reckless.

The affirmative defense incentivizes violent groups and individuals to harm or kill protesters and encourages vigilante types like George Zimmerman, and “Killer Kid” Kyle Rittenhouse to come to Georgia.

“There are political consequences that supporters of this bill don’t understand,” Isabel Otero, Georgia Policy Director for the Georgia SPLC, warned lawmakers in the Senate Judicial meeting. “This bill could be used for different kinds of assemblies, not just protests.” 

Otero gave examples of school board meetings where some parents get upset or people who hold pro-life signs outside an abortion clinic that frightens patients.  These people could become convicted felons with penalties of five years in prison and massive fines.

Another example would be if this bill was used on Bloody Sunday it would, “give an affirmative defense to a group like the Neo Nazis, but would prosecute someone like Congressman John Lewis for walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with a $5,000 fine and five years in prison.,” Otero explained

State Senator Michael Rhett (D-Marietta) noted that Georgia already has codes and statutes in law that cover the things that are in this bill such as if you should damage somebody’s car or break a store window.  

“This bill sounds like a lot of representatives who support this bill are not from Atlanta, not Black, and aren’t from communities of color. They are trying to prevent progress in the State of Georgia,” Kevin Waukegan, a community organizer with The Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, said.

The bill also takes away a city’s sovereign immunity.

“Our fear that the waving of sovereign immunity against the City of Atlanta is just an open checkbook against us. Sovereign immunity is one of the things that allow us to function as a government. Once you start saying we have to both pay for the police force and then pay for anything that individuals do makes it very difficult for us to proceed as a city,” Kenyatta Mitchell, Metro Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the City of Atlanta, testified in the Senate Judiciary meeting.

This bill is so bad that even the Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian conservative political advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers oppose SB 171.

Anti-Protest Bills Introduced in Response to Protest Movements in the U.S.

The following information is from the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.

Since Trump became president in January 2017, there has been a wave of bills introduced by state and federal lawmakers to limit the right to protest and free speech. The excuse for these unconstitutional bills is in response to racial justice movements and demonstrations against oil and gas pipelines. Lawmakers claim that the bills are needed to prevent violence, but the overwhelming majority of protests are nonviolent.  

In 2017, there were 57 anti-protest bills introduced,10 were enacted and 46 were defeated but these bills continue to be introduced every year across the country.  In 2021, 91 anti-protest bills were introduced in Republican-controlled states with 12 enacted, 41 defeated, and 38 pending, 

These anti-protest bills create extreme penalties for minor infractions connected to protests. A 2020 law in Tennessee makes obstructing a sidewalk or street an offense punishable by a year in jail. A Louisiana law makes it a felony, punishable by five years in jail, to trespass near a pipeline.

These anti-protest bills are vague on the definition of riot. In Florida, a felony to riot is defined in a manner that can capture peaceful protesters who are simply part of a larger crowd where a few individuals engage in property destruction which may be as minor as kicking over a trash can. 

Some anti-protest bills expand liability to organizations and individuals not involved in protests. A law enacted in 2017 in Oklahoma, cites organizations that “conspire” with protesters who trespass near an oil or gas pipeline are liable for up to one million dollars. Also if a group or individual encourages people to engage in a nonviolent demonstration that police deem an “unlawful assembly” they could be subject to felony penalties. 

Many anti-protest bills create new protections for individuals who harm or kill protesters. In 2020, there were over one hundred instances of protesters being hit by vehicles.  A Florida law protects someone who injures or kills a protester from being sued. These bills are designed to intimidate protesters and even actively encourage violence against them.

These anti-protest bills are unnecessary and unconstitutional. 

What in the World is Wrong with Republican Lawmakers Introducing Bills to Take Away People’s Constitutional Rights and Criminalize Legal Activities?

There is no end to dangerous bills going through the Georgia State House and Senate to criminalize people and activities. Even worse, all these bills are being introduced in all the Republican-controlled state governments.

Here are a few examples of bad bills currently in Georgia:  HB 1084 and SB 377 censoring racial history and banning books, SB 435 discriminates against Transgender Georgians, and SB 171 criminalizes protest. 

 SB 535 criminalizes homeless people sleeping outside. It did not cross over but still needs to be watched in case it is attached to another bill or brought back.

Here are bad bills that have already been signed into law in Georgia –  HB 481 (a 2019 law) criminalizes abortion, SB 202 (a 2021 law) voter suppression, and election invalidation.

Some activists think Republicans are trying to drag the country back 70 years to the “good old days” of Jim Crow laws.  While other activists believe that these bills are “red meat” to Trump’s supporters to get their votes in 2022.  Whatever the reason this is a cultural fight to save our rights and democracy.

These dangerous bills will be challenged in the courts and will result in a costly legal battle to save democracy.

Written and Photo by Gloria Tatum

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