'Anti-Riot' Measures Open a Wide Door to Censorship | Opinion

Under the guise of "anti-riot" legislation, several states are considering measures ostensibly aimed at protecting public safety.

It's an understandable pitch. Who wants to defend rioting, looting and destruction of cities and businesses? But attacking people and destroying property and businesses are already against the law.

These proposals would have more insidious effects. Laws don't have to be called the Censorship Act of 2021 for those in power to use them to target people and ideas with which they disagree.

That's the likely outcome if states enact "anti-riot" bills with overly broad language that make it easy for authorities to shut down First Amendment activity and arrest protesters whose ideas they don't like. The proposals tap into legitimate concerns about real problems to justify policies that risk eroding civil liberties without enhancing public safety.

I agree with policymakers who want to address violence, which is never an acceptable method of political action by individuals. Rioting is not free speech. But what some state legislators are now proposing goes far beyond addressing violence.

Instead, these proposals strike at the heart of the First Amendment's guarantees of free speech and the right to peaceful assembly—rights that have empowered everyone from abolitionists to LGBTQ activists over more than two centuries.

In the name of public safety and law and order, legislators in Georgia, Indiana, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Kentucky (sadly this is a sampling and not an exhaustive list) are all considering measures that would deter peaceful protest and chill speech.

Georgia has introduced the speciously named "Safe Communities Act," which includes a requirement that any "assembly" on public property must have a permit.

Want to gather family and friends in your neighborhood park to celebrate a birthday? Better have that permit and your "emergency action plan that addresses any first aid and security resources provided by the applicant." And best get that application in early as all applications must be "reviewed by an attorney representing the governing authority" and by all public safety and public works department heads of such county or municipal corporation.

Protesters
Protesters march across the Brooklyn Bridge to demand funding for excluded workers in the New York State budget on March 5, 2021, in New York City. David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

A Kentucky bill would bar anyone convicted under an overly broad and vague definition of rioting from receiving certain public benefits, in addition to imposing mandatory minimum prison sentences. Kentuckians would be left to decide between their First Amendment right to protest and their food security, health care benefits, or even housing, lest the rally get deemed a "riot" by law enforcement.

A measure in Indiana would put people at risk of being charged with a felony and subject to mandatory minimum prison sentences, if they participate in a rally that turns violent—even if they did not commit any violent acts themselves.

That points to one of the crucial aspects of these kinds of restrictions: The first targets of censorship are rarely the last. You might be aiming at the other side, but eventually you're going to hit your own.

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act was enacted to combat organized crime. It wasn't too long, though, before it was used to go after anti-abortion protesters. Had the Supreme Court not ended that abomination, the law would have certainly been used to target other causes, left and right, depending on who happened to hold the reins of authority at any given moment.

Just as the well-intentioned RICO Act was disfigured in search of unpopular dragons to slay, it is a certainty that any new laws that target protests—whatever the bill's title—will be put to the same use.

What makes these proposals so dangerous is that they could potentially empower authorities to shut down peaceful protests and arrest nonviolent participants. Even if these individuals are quickly released and no criminal or civil charges are pursued, the chilling effect on speech will be real.

The right to protest is essential to progress. Americans must be free to express their deeply held beliefs without fear that the government will shut them down.

It should be deeply concerning to lawmakers who have sworn to uphold the Constitution that their legislation, wittingly or unwittingly, could be used to silence their fellow citizens.

David Voorman is a senior policy analyst for free speech and peace at Americans for Prosperity.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.