Bill inspired by backlash of 2020 racial justice protests clears Georgia Senate panel

A Georgia bill, opponents say, aims to stop protests by flouting constitutional rights through expanded criminal penalties, increased civil liability for local governments that allow demonstrations and permit violence against protesters.

Senate Bill 171 narrowly advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee with a 5-4 vote along party lines on Tuesday after a hearing in which critics said the bill unlawfully violates freedom of expression and the right to assembly protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Critics of the bill include First Amendment lawyers, progressive organizations like the ACLU and Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian and conservative advocacy organization.

Under the bill, a person faces one to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000 if convicted of blocking a highway or participating in a protest with seven people or more that becomes violent or damages property.

Spray painting or other means of defacing a state-owned monument, structure or cemetery could result in up to five years in prison, a $10,000 fine and the tab to repair or replace the monument .

During the 2020 season of protests in Georgia calling for racial justice, Confederate Monuments across the state were vandalized, including a prominent marker in downtown Athens.

Republican Cataula Sen. Randy Robertson said the bill was intended to target events like the 2020 protests in Atlanta that, in a few cases, transformed violent and damaged businesses up to millions. He also cited January 6 US Capitol Riot.

“What this bill does is protect the rights of any Georgian to go there and exercise their First Amendment rights under the Constitution of the United States of America on any matter that he chooses to do without fear of being assaulted or hurt,” Robertson said. “It also reminds cities like Atlanta that citizens pay taxes and that public safety is a primary responsibility of the city.”

Senator Randy Robertson. Recorder Ross Williams/Georgia

The bill also permanently bars anyone found guilty of breaking the law from working for state or local governments and provides a legal shield for people who injure or kill protesters while fleeing if they have reasonable grounds to believe they had to do it to protect themselves.

The bill was amended on Tuesday to remove the protection of property from the justifications proposed by the bill for causing injury.

Opponents of the bill argue that it aims to prevent peaceful gatherings and protests from taking place on public property by also creating a cumbersome permit process. Organizers would be required to provide local government and law enforcement with contact details for those responsible for maintaining order, as well as an emergency action plan that addresses first aid and safety measures.

Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights community organizer Kevin Joachin said the the senators who signed the bill demonstrate their misunderstanding of the need to protest when other approaches have failed in situations such as a black man wrongfully killed by police.

“I don’t know what that has to do with places like Cataula, Ocilla, Tyrone – where a lot of these reps who support this bill come from, but it sounds like people who aren’t from Atlanta, who are not black, who are not from communities of color are trying to prevent progress here in the state of Georgia,” Joachin said.

Robertson’s bill is part of a series of Republican tough-on-crime laws that add mandatory minimum sentences, turn misdemeanors into felonies and block felons from accessing drug and mental health diversion programs.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and other Republican lawmakers have cited violent crime rates in Atlanta and other parts of the state as reasons to toughen criminal penalties and provide more resources to police departments , sheriff’s offices and other law enforcement agencies.

Civil rights organizations say the tougher sentences and other penalties would be a major setback to criminal justice reforms carried out by Kemp’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal.

On Tuesday, officials from the City of Atlanta and the Lobbying Organization for County Governments spoke out against the bill’s provision that says local governments can be sued if local leaders tell police to do not intervene with the demonstrators. An Atlanta City Council member has urged police to stand down as an armed encampment of protesters took over a Wendy’s where Rashard Brooks was shot by an officer in June 2020.

Larry Ramsey, attorney for the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, said the law is troubling in 146 of the state’s 159 counties, where sheriffs are responsible for law enforcement and county commissioners have no control over this.

“I’m concerned that many counties are in a position to balance the requirement of state law to have a licensing system and also try not to step on the Citizens First Amendment and the Georgia’s free speech rights, especially in traditional public forums like sidewalks and courthouses. ,” he said.

Georgia lawmakers should focus more on mass incarceration and other criminal justice issues, said Kareem El-Hosseiny, government affairs director for the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“We are all here to debate a bill that would limit our constitutionally protected rights,” he said. “Even now, as I speak, truckers from across the country are gathering in our nation’s capital to loop around the capital’s ring road blocking traffic, all in protest against COVID-19 protocols imposed by the government.

“If SB 171 were to pass, the truckers’ protest would most likely be illegal if it happened in this state,” El-Hosseiny said.

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