UN human rights experts are calling on lawmakers in the United States to stop the “alarming” trend of “undemocratic” anti-protest bills designed to criminalize and impede the right to protest.
According to UN independent experts Maina Kiai and David Kaye, lawmakers in no fewer than nineteen states have introduced legislation restricting the right to assembly since Trump was elected last November.
“Since January 2017, a number of undemocratic bills have been proposed in state legislatures with the purpose or effect of criminalizing peaceful protests,” the special rapporteurs said. “The bills, if enacted into law, would severely infringe upon the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in ways that are incompatible with US obligations under international human rights law and with First Amendment protections. The trend also threatens to jeopardize one of the United States’ constitutional pillars: free speech.”
Concerns about the implication of these bills were recently raised by the experts in a recent communication sent to the US authorities on 27 March 2017. The bills come amid a wave of US protests over the past few years which have intensified in recent months.
“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 society have mobilized in peaceful protests, as it is their right under international human rights law and US law,” Kiai and Kaye said.
In their analysis, the UN experts pointed out a number of bills regarding “unlawful obstruction of traffic” by protesters, for instance in Florida and Tennessee, where it has been proposed to exempt drivers from persecution if they accidentally hit and kill people demonstrating in the road.
A similar Indiana Senate bill could allow law enforcement to “use any means necessary” to clear the roads of demonstrators, while at least eight other states propose bills that would “disproportionately criminalize protestors for obstructing traffic,” like the one in Missouri, which sets a prison term of up to seven years for obstruction of traffic.
Colorado lawmakers are considering a big increase in penalties for environmental protesters. Activists who tamper with oil or gas equipment could, under the measure, face felony charges and be punished with up to 18 months behind bars and a fine of up to $100,000. A bill pending in the Virginia state legislature would dramatically increase punishment for people who “unlawfully” assemble after “having been lawfully warned to disperse.” Those who do so could face a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
The experts also criticized the use of the word “unlawful” regarding public assembly in the proposed legislation, as well as the term “violent,” which they deemed to be entirely inappropriate in the phrase “violent protest” – common for most of the bills.
“There can be no such thing in law as a violent protest,” Kiai and Kaye wrote. “There are violent protesters, who should be dealt with individually and appropriately by law enforcement.”
Supporters of the measures argue that the laws are needed to maintain public safety. The experts, though, disagreed. “There can be no such thing in law as a violent protest. There are violent protesters, who should be dealt with individually and appropriately by law enforcement,” they said, noting that “one person’s decision to resort to violence does not strip other protesters of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly.”Kaye and Kiai said.