UN human rights experts have sounded the alarm over an “undemocratic” trend in the U.S. by lawmakers to criminalize and impede the right to protest. The warning is particularly troublesome given that one of the primary tools to fight the agendas of President Donald Trump and right-wing Republicans has been consistent, nationwide protests from broad sectors of society.
According to UN special rapporteurs Maina Kiai and David Kaye, lawmakers in 19 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 experts said in a joint statement. “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.”
Several bills under consideration in Indiana, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Missouri use the accusation of “obstructing traffic” to allow law enforcement broad powers to criminalize protests, including one that calls for prison terms of up to seven years, the UN experts said.
Colorado, North Dakota, and Oklahoma have proposed legislation to counter protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. And state lawmakers in Minnesota seek to hold protesters criminally responsible for demonstrations that turn violent.
“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.”
According to CommonDreams, the Arizona State Senate voted in February to expand racketeering laws to allow police to arrest protesters and seize their assets, treating “organized dissent as organized crime.”
The progressive organization also reported that activists in Portland, OR organizing against police killings of black men could now be considered by the Department of Homeland Security as “domestic terrorists” because Portland police labeled a Nov. 10, 2016 demonstration a “riot.”
“Peaceful assembly is a fundamental right, not a privilege, and the government has no business imposing a general requirement that people get permission before exercising that right,” the UN human rights experts said.
You can find out if your state lawmakers are trying to criminalize the constitutional right to peaceful protest, assembly, and speech here.