U.N. Experts Warn ‘Undemocratic’ Anti-Protest Bills Threaten Free Speech

Bills that would result in harm to protesters are “incompatible with international human rights,” said U.N. experts on peaceful assembly.

Protesters demonstrate in response to the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, Illinois, November 25, 2015. Laquan McDonald, 17, was fatally shot by Jason Van Dyke, a Chicago police officer, in October 2014. / REUTERS

Following Donald Trump’s presidential win, lawmakers in at least 19 states have introduced legislation to restrict the right to protest, even making it legal to run over protesters blocking traffic, or allowing officers to clear the road by “any means necessary.”

Maina Kiai and David Kaye, U.N. experts on freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, warn the trend in such state bills is incompatible with international human rights, and ending peaceful protests infringes upon U.S. constitutional rights.

“The trend threatens to jeopardize one of the United States’ constitutional pillars: free speech,” Kiai and Kaye said in a recent statement sent to U.S. authorities.

“From the Black Lives Matter movement, to the environmental and Native American movements in opposition to the Dakota Access oil pipeline, and the Women’s Marches, individuals and organizations across [American] society have mobilized in peaceful protests.”

Bills in Republican-governed states like Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri and North Dakota were drafted with the intent of curbing protests but do not specifically use the word “protest” in the documents.

For example, in January, North Dakota lawmakers introduced House Bill 1203, which states that unintentionally running over a person obstructing traffic can be lawful:

“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a driver of a motor vehicle who unintentionally causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway, is not guilty of an offense.”

According to the Bismarck Tribune, Rep. Keith Kempenich (R-Bowman), a co-sponsor of the bill, admitted it was created in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in southern Morton County. Native Americans led the protests.

“It’s shifting the burden of proof from the motor vehicle driver to the pedestrian,” Kempenich said.

The bill was voted down 40-51 by House lawmakers in February.

In Indiana, Senate Bill 285, still pending before the House, has a provision that allows law enforcement officials to “use any means necessary to clear the roads of people unlawfully obstructing vehicular traffic.”

In Iowa, Senate File 111 would subject protesters who block traffic to felony charges. And in Florida, protesters blocking traffic would be faced with a misdemeanor of the second-degree charge under Senate Bill 1096. Under certain circumstances, the bill would also exempt motorists from liability for injuring or killing a person interfering with traffic.

One Missouri bill proposes a prison term of up to seven years for “unlawful obstruction of traffic.”

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In Minnesota, where protests took place following the police-related death of Philando Castile, a proposed bill could have the effect of criminalizing peaceful protesters at demonstrations that turn violent or result in property damage — even if those protesters did not personally participate in the violence or property damage.

“We call on the U.S. authorities, at the federal and state level, to refrain from enacting legislation that would impinge on the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, expression and opinion,” Kaye and Kiai said.

The experts also said there was no such thing as a violent protest, only violent protesters.

“One person’s decision to resort to violence does not strip other protesters of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly,” the letter states.

“Peaceful assembly is a fundamental right, not a privilege, and the government has no business imposing a general requirement that people get permission before exercising that right.”

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13 comments


  • So now blocking traffic and preventing emergency vehicles from reaching the hospital as quickly as possible
    is considered peaceful protest. And this was documented during some of the recent protests where freeways were blocked.
    I

    • Would you consider strangling someone for selling loose cigarettes or the orgy of police violence in Ferguson examples of peaceful white protest?

      • “peaceful white protest”?

        What’s color got to do with it?

        Please explain your ugly words.

      • My point was that if you want to protest that’s fine but that does not justify blocking a highway thus endangering the life of a child on the way to the hospital or destroy the livelihood of a store owner by trashing his workplace.
        Evidently you disagree and think that’s OK because the police showed the same disregard for life.

        • Our country was founded by men who shot to death soldiers of their own country in protest. Read up on Lexington, 1775.

          In contrast, peacefully and temporarily blocking a highway in protest of government sanctioned murder sure seems tame.

          • You win.
            I guess your right.
            As long as it’s someone else’s child who dies because he’s delayed getting to the hospital it’s OK
            and it’s justified by history.

  • Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey

    Union-busters love laws like this, which revert to the 19th-century custom of prosecuting union members for picket lines and generally criminalizing organized activities.

  • Some of these lawmakers are crazy not only in the head but all over. This says it all, ““Peaceful assembly is a fundamental right, not a privilege, and the government has no business imposing a general requirement that people get permission before exercising that right.””.

  • What people should remember is that excessive acts of oppression is what sparked the riots a few decades ago. People will put up with a lot but only for so long, then they will rise up and rebel in whatever way they deem appropriate.

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