EFFORTS TO SUPPRESS FREE SPEECH

In the last 5 months, Republican legislators in at least 19 states have proposed laws that would crack down on the freedom of speech. [1] This is a bit of a surprise, since conservatives often present themselves as protectors of freedom of speech, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Republicans and conservatives have even asserted a right to freedom of speech for corporations. So, what’s going on?

These Republicans are trying to block the freedom of speech of protesters opposed to their and President Trump’s policies. Proposed legislation in various states would increase punishments for protesters, seize their assets (including homes), and remove penalties on drivers who hit protesters with their cars. Some of the legislation tries to make non-violent protests seem like serious threats that deserve severe punishment by redefining them as “riots” or terrorism.

The good news is that none of these bills has yet been passed into law. Several of them have been stopped by protests or the realization that they are unconstitutional. [2]

It’s noteworthy that these proposals are surfacing when the protests are from the left. They have arisen in the face of protests of the election of Trump, of oil pipelines, and of police shootings and harsh treatment of unarmed Blacks. They target protests that support raising the minimum wage and protecting the environment. Historically, similar efforts from the right to suppress protesting were evident during civil rights protests in the 1960s and workers’ protests in the late 1800s and early 1900s. [3]

It’s interesting that concern over protests wasn’t evident during Tea Party protests; pro-Trump rallies; KKK, white supremacists, or anti-civil rights protests; or anti-gay, anti-immigrant, or anti-Muslim protests. Concern over protests also wasn’t evident when anti-abortion protesters blocked, burned, and bombed Planned Parenthood health clinics. Furthermore, the response from the left to protests by those on the right has been very temperate and focused on efforts to ensure the physical safety of patients wanting to access Planned Parenthood clinics. Those on the left respect the fact that even verbal attacks and harassment are protected free speech.

One of the rationales for Republicans’ anti-protest legislation is that they’re trying to counter the actions of paid, professional protesters who foment violence. This is a common accusation that experts agree is overstated. If anything, instigators of violence more often come from the right than from the left. In fact, there has been remarkably little violence in the anti-Trump protests, despite their size, energy, and strong emotions.

Although none of the anti-protest legislation has yet passed, there is cause for concern. Many state governments are dominated by Republicans and the Republicans there and in Washington (including the President) exhibit quite conservative, law-and-order attitudes, as well as a desire to suppress opposition. This, combined with the frequent demonstrations protesting Trump and Republican policies, as well as the many powerful interests that have a stake in suppressing current protests, produce an atmosphere in which such legislation may pass and where violations of the right to freedom of speech are quite possible.

Threats of legislation that would punish protesters and anti-protest rhetoric are likely to have a chilling effect on dissent, on protesting, and on exercising freedom of speech. As citizens of a democracy, we must pushback against these threats and support the Bill of Rights and the freedom of speech.

[1]      Yoder, T., 3/7/17, “New anti-protesting legislation: A deeper look,” National Lawyers Guild and Moyer & Company (http://billmoyers.com/story/new-anti-protesting-legislation-deeper-look/)

[2]      McCauley, L., 2/28/17, “Outcry kills anti-protest law in Arizona, but troubling trend continues nationwide,” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/02/28/outcry-kills-anti-protest-law-arizona-troubling-trend-continues-nationwide)

[3]      Ingraham, C., 2/24/17, “Republican lawmakers introduce bills to curb protesting in at least 18 states,” The Washington Post

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