Column: How Republican states are trying to squelch our rights

An overhead view of people standing in the middle of an intersection during a Black Lives Matter protest
People take to the streets during a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles last year.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

First came Georgia’s attempt to curtail the rights of voters under the guise of making elections safe from fraud. (Never mind there was no fraud.)

Now comes Florida’s attempt to curtail the rights of protesters, under the guise of increasing public safety.

Not to be outdone, Minnesota legislators are considering a bill that would bar anyone convicted of unlawful assembly from receiving any type of state aid, including food stamps, rent assistance, unemployment benefits and students loans.


And North Dakota has enacted a bill that would prohibit the wearing of masks, hoods or anything that conceals a person’s face while committing a crime — which some civil libertarians fear could include such things as jaywalking during a protest.

It’s not just those states; all over the country, Republican-dominated legislatures are engaged in various methods of legalistic chicanery to try to undo results of elections they don’t like and suppress speech they don’t want to hear. More than 90 bills in 35 states have been introduced or enacted in recent months and years, said Elly Page, a senior legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which works to protect the freedom of assembly around the world. “The extreme suppression is unprecedented.”

The new spate of laws is an attempt to undermine some of our country’s most fundamental rights, although most have yet to be adjudicated by the courts. (Last year, a judge threw out a 2018 Missouri law that barred public employees from picketing or striking. The case is now pending before the Missouri Supreme Court.)

If you like spitting in the face of the 1st Amendment, you will love the bill that Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed recently, a law he declared to be “the strongest anti-looting, anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country.”

When he signed the “Combating Public Disorder Act” earlier this month, De Santis said, “In Florida, we are taking an unapologetic stand for the rule of law and public safety. We are holding those who incite violence in our communities accountable, supporting our law enforcement officers who risk their lives every day to keep us safe and protecting Floridians from the chaos of mob violence. We’re also putting an end to the bullying and intimidation tactics of the radical left by criminalizing doxing and requiring restitution for damaging memorials and monuments by rioters.”

What, no mention of the radical right?

“This bill is racist at its core,” Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones told the New York Times.


I looked at a lot of news coverage of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests in Florida after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minnesota. There were dozens and dozens of protests — overwhelmingly peaceful, but yes, with a smattering of violence, including smashed windows, minor looting and the incineration of a police car Miami.

Of course violence isn’t acceptable, but there are already laws on the books to deal with it. Nothing that happened in Florida merited DeSantis’ crackdown on constitutionally protected activities — except that he is now auditioning for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination in the event that the world’s sorest loser in Mar-a-Lago releases his death grip on the GOP.

The Kentucky state Senate passed an absurd bill last month that would make it a crime to insult or taunt a police officer at a protest if the comment provokes a violent response. Thankfully it expired with the end of the legislative session without action by the House. But it could come back.

“We are criminalizing speech,” said Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey, a Democrat.

Perhaps the most outrageous trend in this wave of speech suppression is the attempt by some states — including Tennessee, Oklahoma and Iowa — to give immunity in certain cases to motorists who kill or injure protesters who block roads and highways.

“Provisions that allow violence against protesters are the most concerning,” said Page.

In 2017, she said, a handful of states introduced legislation that would absolve motorists of any criminal or civil consequences for hitting protesters with their cars, but none was adopted.

The idea has taken hold again, however, and in her view, such laws would simply create “new defenses for violence” against protesters.

Last year, after months of protests against racial injustice sparked by Floyd’s murder, then-Atty. Gen. William Barr told federal prosecutors to be aggressive when charging rioters and others who had committed violent crimes at protests. He suggested that such demonstrators be charged with sedition, i.e. plotting to overthrow the government.

Oh, the irony.

Four months later, a riotous mob of Trump supporters violently stormed the Capitol. According to a National Public Radio database of individuals charged in connection with the assault that left five people dead, none of the 400 (and counting) has been charged with sedition or treason, although many were there to enact a violent overthrow of our lawful presidential election.

How did Barr describe the Jan. 6 riot?

“I’m sad to see but not surprised in a way to see the kind of violence we saw on Capitol Hill,” he told Britain’s ITV News. “I don’t know if I would use the word ‘inevitable,’ but I think that when you start suppressing free speech, when people lose confidence in the media and also when they lose faith in the integrity of elections, you are going to have some people resort to violence.”

Is it too much to ask of the Republican legislators who are trying to criminalize speech and give permission to run over protesters to look at why so many Americans are moved to protest racial injustice? And to suggest that those are the issues they should be working to solve?

Far easier to stomp on the 1st Amendment, I guess, than to find ways to make our country live up to its ideals.