The problems with Anti-Protest legislation

Gaby Jones, Culture Editor

New anti-protest bills have been on the rise as of lately. These bills are notably scrutinized for their easy ability to be abused and block out the voices of civilians. Anti-protest laws are not a new occurrence in the United StatesThey often come as follow up to widespread outrage related to issues of social, environmental and systemic change. Following the same pattern, more and more anti-protest bills are being introduced, working to silence those who voices need to be amplified. 

The suppression of active protests against government action dates centuries back. One of the more notable forms of legislation was the Sedition Act of 1918 which was passed during World War I.  The main purpose of the act was to restrict and criminalize the outward disapproval of the United States’ entry into the war. Similar to the bills that have been created in more recent years, legislation like the Sedition Acts attempted to manipulate the expression of government criticism and prosecute those who partake in peaceful protest on the basis of their non-infringing stance. 

Today, legislature within multiple states continue to display inconsistencies regarding their previous adherence to First Amendment protections.  

One trend in anti-protest legislation began around 2016, during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests which came as a result of construction that threatened the water and ancient cultural sites surrounding the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North DakotaWhile this protest was getting an influx of attention, states began to pass numerous bills penalizing peaceful protests near “critical infrastructure.” 

Subsequently, state governments began churning out anti-protest bills from all angles. According to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law’s US Protest Law Tracker, some of the bills include legislation that expands civil liability for protestors and protest fundersexpands the governors’ power to restrict certain protests, heightens penalties for “inconvenient” protests and removes liability for civilian deaths caused by law enforcement while breaking up a government defined riot. 

Most recently, under Florida Governor Ron Desantis, the House of Representatives passed the HB 1 “anti-riot” billTechnically, the bill has not yet made it to the Governor’s desk, but Desantis has been a driving force behind the bill’s creation.  

It is meant to do several things including, criminalize the act of “committing a riot,” raise charges on existing crimes that are committed during a riot, and much more.  

The way the bill was written, as well as the context of of when it was originally planned, has made it an obvious effort to stifle the individual rights of citizens. The bill has many major flaws that work to directly block Floridian protesters’ right to vocalize and spread awareness on issues that continue to plague us. 

One of the biggest problems with this bill (and ones similar to it) is the reductive and vague definition of riot. The bill states, “A person commits a riot if he or she willfully participates in a violent public disturbance involving an assembly of three or more persons, acting with a common intent to assist each other in violent and disorderly conduct…” Essentially, this section of the bill states that it will only take three people engaged in misconduct to constitute an assembly as a riot. This could mean mass conviction for those adjacent or even completely unrelated to the misconduct of a few. 

Stemming from that, the increase of anti-protest legislation has also brought on many new offenses that are protest specific. A few include “cyberintimidation” and “mob intimidation.” The bill details the specific ways crime severity will increase when committed at a designated riot.  

Another large issue with the legislation is that it gives municipal law enforcement the power to dictate, without delay, what constitutes as a riot from a peaceful protest. Further, it enables them to “respond appropriately” and use “adequate equipment” to combat a protest they deem as unsafeThis type of protection is one that looks reasonable on paper; however, throughout the last few months it has been made clear that law enforcement is quick to initiate violence and abuse force when the protest is fighting against the system that they are a part of. 

HB 1 also goes on to also definthe destruction of “historical property” as a third-degree felony. It reads, “any person who, without the consent of the owner thereof, willfully and maliciously defaces, injures, or otherwise damages by any means a memorial or historic property…and the value of the damage to the memorial or historic property is greater than $200, commits a felony of the third degree.” This section indirectly alludes to nearly 200 confederate statues that were forcefully removed the summer of 2020. It serves as another extended example of how this bill will be preventing progress. 

It is critical to recognize the context of when these proposals were initially announced by Desantis. The plans for rapid legislation were made in close proximity to the multiple Black Lives Matter protests that arose amidst the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin. Protests that primarily became violent when excessive force from law enforcement was utilizedThe same law enforcement agencies that will gain more control over determining when a protest has become a dangerous threat to the public and their property. 

This bill would call for a significant crackdown on wide scale protests in Florida, perpetuate the misuse of funding, and heighten criminalization that will end up hurting minorities the worst. 

Anti-protest legislation seems to be the best way for state government to filter out the voices they wish to hear from the least. Nevertheless, these situations make it even more vital for everyone to actively show support for the groups that continue to be silenced.