THE MASS unrest that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd should have moved legislators everywhere to listen and to learn. Yet in too many cases, the opposite has occurred: State lawmakers have released a torrent of anti-protest bills during the 2021 session, seeking not to engage with speech that challenges the status quo but rather to shut it down.
The New York Times reports that 34 Republican-led legislatures have produced at least 81 such measures this session. That’s more than double the number in any other year. So far, three of these proposals have been signed into law, the latest by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) this week. Others in states such as Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and Oklahoma are well on their way. Proponents claim their aim is to prevent rioting and looting. Those behaviors certainly should be illegal — but they already are. What the bills really seem designed to achieve is the intimidation of peaceful protesters.
Existing anti-riot laws have met with criticism for vague language that grants excessive leeway to police to exaggerate what “immediate danger” may mean, or to arrest nonviolent citizens merely because those around them have become violent. Many of the proposals on the table today take this problem and make it worse. Florida’s, for instance, creates a broad definition of what constitutes a riot. It creates new crimes such as “mob intimidation” and enhances penalties for existing public disorder charges. Indiana’s would bar people convicted of unlawful assembly from state employment, and Minnesota’s would bar convicted protesters from receiving such benefits as student loans and housing aid.
The provisions become only more egregious from there: Taking down a monument in Florida has become a second-degree felony with up to 15 years in prison attached, the same sanction applied in cases of rape. Indiana’s governor now has on his desk a bill that would withhold funds from local governments that fail to protect statues and other memorials. The salvos in Iowa and Oklahoma would grant immunity to drivers who mow down protesters in the street; Florida’s version of this provision was toned down to minimize civil liability for the offense. Also in legislators’ crosshairs are communities that dare decrease their own law enforcement budgets.
A Kentucky bill that foundered in the statehouse read almost as a parody: “Offensive or derisive words” aimed at a law enforcement officer would be punishable by up to three months in jail and a $250 fine. The idea was patently ridiculous — and yet the dozens of bills across the country creeping toward enactment have a similar scent. Rather than using or refining the ample tools authorities have today to target violence and destruction, state governments are giving themselves new tools that would discourage nonviolent expression, too. Elected officials are supposed to protect even the speech they do not want to hear. Instead, too many seem determined to punish it.