UN Free Speech Watchdogs Warn of “Undemocratic” Campaign by US States to Restrict Peaceful Protest

Posted on April 1, 2017

UPDATE: According to a new report from The Intercept, the Minnesota State House passed a bill containing a provision, which civil liberties advocates fear will produce a chilling effect on peaceful protest, that classifies pedestrians blocking a freeway as a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in  jail and/or a $3,000 fine. The measure was passed as part of a public safety budget bill, which the state Senate has also passed independently, and will remain in the version to be presented in the conference committee after House Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to remove it. While there is a chance that the conference committee could strike the provision, its passage or defeat ultimately rests with Democratic Governor Mark Dayton. The bill’s passage by the legislature marks a devastating blow to Minnesota activists and organizers, who have come to rely on the tactic of blocking highway traffic to bring attention to causes which they believe would otherwise be ignored. 

In a previous piece, the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights underscored the present campaign by state legislatures to greatly curtail the ability of demonstrators to exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. As the number of statehouses considering measures restricting protest activities rises to an alarming 19 states, two UN human rights investigators whose work focuses on free expression have voiced grave concerns of a growing trend toward severely limiting the rights of citizens to free speech and assembly in the US.

One proposed measure the investigators found particularly worrying is a bill in Minnesota which would criminalize any protesters taking part in a demonstration in which some participants engaged in violence. Not only is such guilt-by-association reasoning unconscionable on account of its egregious overreach, as it could condemn countless peaceful demonstrators with no inclinations or tolerance for violence, but it would leave all assemblies of peaceful activists susceptible to infiltration by individuals or entities, such as law enforcement or intelligence services, who seek to discredit the group. There is already evidence that local police departments attend protests undercover, as happened in Oakland during a Black Lives Matter protest, and recent reporting on the surveillance and investigatory practices of the FBI, which CCDBR has also highlighted, shows that the policies governing undercover infiltration of activist circles and organizations are extremely lax. This is not to suggest that it is the explicit aim or policy of local, state, and federal law enforcement to discredit otherwise peaceful activist movements, but with this dearth of regulations it is entirely possible that an officer, agent, or informant working in the service of law enforcement could abuse their privileged position and act alone to the detriment of peaceful organizers. 

Additionally, the the investigators specifically noted the dangers which legislation under consideration in several states poses to environmental protests. As many of these bills emerged in the wake of demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, and some refer explicitly to activities which can be construed as disrupting the business of the energy industry, the officials expressed fear at a chilling effect on environmentally focused protest activities. 

The rapid proliferation of legislation, across several states and by widely varying means, limiting the scope of free speech activities is unprecedented. If even a fraction of these measures passes, it would represent an extremely troubling trend of eroding First Amendment protections, and the reversal of each measure would require legal challenge in the high courts, likely at the federal level. In short, if even one of the proposed laws takes root, it will require considerable and concerted effort to uproot, while presenting only the distinct possibility of spreading. 

You can find the full story from Reuters here, and CCDBR’s previous piece on anti-protest legislation here