by John W. Whitehead, Rutherford Institute:
“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”— George Washington
It’s a given that the government is corrupt, unaccountable, and has exceeded its authority.
So what can we do about it?
The first remedy involves speech (protest, assembly, speech, prayer, and publicity), and lots of it, in order to speak truth to power.
The First Amendment, which is the cornerstone of the Bill of Rights, affirms the right of “we the people” to pray freely about our grievances regarding the government. We can gather together peacefully to protest those grievances. We can publicize those grievances. And we can express our displeasure (peacefully) in word and deed.
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Unfortunately, tyrants don’t like people who speak truth to power.
The American Police State has shown itself to be particularly intolerant of free speech activities that challenge its authority, stand up to its power grabs, and force it to operate according to the rules of the Constitution.
Cue the rise of protest laws, the police state’s go-to methods for muzzling discontent.
These protest laws, some of which appear to encourage violence against peaceful protesters by providing immunity to individuals who drive their car into protesters impeding traffic and use preemptive deadly force against protesters who might be involved in a riot, take intolerance for speech with which one might disagree to a whole new level.
Ever since the Capitol protests on Jan. 6, 2021, state legislatures have introduced a broad array of these laws aimed at criminalizing protest activities. Yet while the growing numbers of protest laws cropping up across the country are being marketed as necessary to protect private property, public roads or national security, they are a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a thinly disguised plot to discourage anyone from challenging government authority at the expense of our First Amendment rights.
It doesn’t matter what the source of that discontent might be (police brutality, election outcomes, COVID-19 mandates, the environment, etc.): protest laws, free speech zones, bubble zones, trespass zones, anti-bullying legislation, zero tolerance policies, hate crime laws, etc., aim to muzzle every last one of us.
However, as Human Rights Watch points out, these assaults on free speech are nothing new. “Various states have long-tried to curtail the right to protest. They do so by legislating wide definitions of what constitutes an ‘unlawful assembly’ or a ‘riot’ as well as increasing punishments. They also allow police to use catch-all public offenses, such as trespassing, obstructing traffic, or disrupting the peace, as a pretext for ordering dispersals, using force, and making arrests. Finally, they make it easier for corporations and others to bring lawsuits against protest organizers.”
Make no mistake: while many of these laws claim to be in the interest of “public safety and limiting economic damage,” these legislative attempts to redefine and criminalize speech are a backdoor attempt to rewrite the Constitution and render the First Amendment’s robust safeguards null and void.
For instance, there are at least 205 proposed laws being considered in 45 states that would curtail the right to peacefully assemble and protest by expanding the definition of rioting, heightening penalties for existing offenses, or creating new crimes associated with assembly.
No matter how you package these laws, no matter how well-meaning they may sound, no matter how much you may disagree with the protesters or sympathize with the objects of the protest, these proposed laws are aimed at one thing only: discouraging dissent.
In Alabama, lawmakers are pushing to allow individuals to use deadly force near a riot. Kentucky, Missouri and New Hampshire are also considering similar stand your ground laws to justify the use of lethal force in relation to riots.
In Arizona, legislators want to classify protests involving seven or more people as felonies punishable by up to two years in jail. Under such a law, traditional, nonviolent forms of civil disobedience—sit-ins, boycotts and marches—would be illegal.
In Arkansas, peaceful protesters who engage in civil disobedience by occupying any government property after being told to leave could face six months in jail and a $1000 fine.
In Minnesota, where activists continue to protest the death of George Floyd, who was killed after police knelt on his neck for eight minutes, individuals who are found guilty of any kind of offense in connection with a peaceful protest could be denied a range of benefits, including food assistance, education loans and grants, and unemployment assistance.
Oregon lawmakers wanted to “require public community colleges and universities to expel any student convicted of participating in a violent riot.” In Illinois, students who twice infringe the rights of others to engage in expressive activities could be suspended for at least a year.
Proposed laws in at least 25 states, including Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Florida, would give drivers the green light to “accidentally” run over protesters who are preventing them from fleeing a riot. Washington wants to levy steeper penalties against protesters who “swarm” a vehicle, punishing them for a repeat offense with up to 40 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Responding to protests over the Keystone Pipeline, South Dakota enabled its governor and sheriffs to prohibit gatherings of 20 or more people on public land if the gathering might damage the land. At least 15 other states have also adopted or are considering legislation that would levy harsher penalties for environmental protests near oil and gas pipelines.
In Iowa, all it takes is for one person in a group of three of more people to use force or cause property damage, and the whole group can be punished with up to 5 years in prison and a $7,500 fine.
Obstruct access to critical infrastructure in Mississippi and you could be facing a $10,000 fine and a seven-year prison sentence.
A North Carolina law would have made it a crime to heckle state officials. Under this law, shouting at a former governor would constitute a crime.
In Connecticut, you could be sentenced to five years behind bars and a $5,000 fine for disrupting the state legislature by making noise or using disturbing language.
Indiana lawmakers wanted to authorize police to use “any means necessary” to breakup mass gatherings that block traffic. Lawmakers have since focused their efforts on expanding the definition of a “riot” and punishing anyone who wears a mask to a peaceful protest, even a medical mask, with 2.5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Georgia wants to ban all spontaneous, First Amendment-protected assemblies and deny anyone convicted of violating the ban from receiving state or local employment benefits.
Virginia wants to subject protesters who engage in an “unlawful assembly” after “having been lawfully warned to disperse” with up to a year of jail time and a fine of up to $2,500.
Missouri made it illegal for public employees to take part in strikes and picketing, only to have the law ruled unconstitutional in its entirety.