As Georgia bill opponents argue aims to stop protests by trampling on constitutional rights through expanded criminal penalties, added civil liability for local governments that allow protests and authorized violence against protesters.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

Senate Bill 171 narrowly advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee with a 5-4 vote along party lines on Tuesday after a hearing where detractors said the bill unlawfully violates freedom of expression and the right to assemble 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 would face 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 or more people that turns violent or damages property.

Spray painting or other ways of defacing a publicly 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.  

Georgia Sen. Randy Robertson Credit: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Cataula Republican Sen Randy Robertson has said the bill is meant to target events like the 2020 protests in Atlanta that in a few instances turned violent and damaged businesses to the tune of millions. He also cited the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot

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

The bill also permanently bars anyone convicted of breaking the law from working for state or local governments and offers a legal shield to people who injure or kill protesters while fleeing if they have a reasonable belief they needed to do so to protect themselves. 

The bill was amended Tuesday to remove protection of property from the bill’s proposed justifications to cause injury.

Opponents of the bill argue that it intends to prevent peaceful rallies and protests from taking place on public property by also creating a burdensome permitting process. Organizers would be required to provide to local government and law enforcement agencies contact information of people responsible for keeping order, along with an emergency action plan that addresses first aid and security measures.

Kevin Joachin, community organizer for Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, said that the senators who have signed the bill demonstrate their lack of understanding on why protesting is necessary when other approaches have failed in situations such as a Black person being unjustly killed by police.

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

Robertson’s bill is among a slew of Republican tough-on-crime legislation that adds on mandatory minimum sentences, escalates misdemeanors into felonies, and prevents felons from accessing diversion programs for drug and mental health.

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

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

On Tuesday representatives for 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 not to intervene with protesters. An Atlanta city council member 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, an attorney for the Association 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 that.

“I’m concerned that many counties would be in the posture of balancing the state law requirement to have a permitting scheme and then also trying not to tread on citizens First Amendment and Georgia free speech rights, particularly in traditional public forums like sidewalks and courthouses,” he said.

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

“We’re all here debating a bill that would curtail our constitutionally protected rights,” he said. “Even now, as I speak, truckers from all around the country are gathered in our nation’s capital doing loops around the Capital Beltway tying up traffic, all to protest the government imposed COVID-19 protocols.

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

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