Eight states have passed laws cracking down on protest activity since Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the United States last summer, according to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, which tracks such legislation. Similar bills are pending in 21 states, according to the Washington, D.C.-based center.
New laws enacted in Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma and Tennessee this year increase penalties for blocking traffic, tearing down monuments and other unlawful behavior during a protest or riot. The bills typically define “riot” as a gathering of three or more people that threatens public safety.
New Arkansas, Kansas and Montana laws increase penalties for protesting near oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure. And an Alabama law will allow cities in Lauderdale County, where protestors called for the removal of a Confederate statue, to control where protests occur and to charge protest organizers permit fees.
Republican bill sponsors and police groups say increasing penalties for crimes committed during a protest will help prevent violence and protect law enforcement officers. But civil rights groups and Democrats say the heightened penalties will chill First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceful assembly, and could be used to disproportionately arrest people of color.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed his state’s new law in April surrounded by GOP lawmakers and law enforcement officers.
“We wanted to make sure that we were able to protect the people of our great state, people’s businesses and property against any type of mob activity or violent assemblies,” he said then, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
But Democratic state Sen. Shev Jones told the Times that DeSantis’ “press conference spectacle was a distraction that will only further disenfranchise Black and brown communities.”