This wave of legislation isn’t a response to any protest — but to those with an anti-racist message led by Black and Indigenous communities. Rather than engage with that message and focus on ending brutal police practices, legislators are taking aim at one of our fundamental rights.
And these anti-protest bills have taken a variety of forms. Some could affect anyone who attends any mass gathering — regardless of its message — or who merely posts online criticism of a police officer, elected official or public employee.
These provisions are unconstitutional. They could swallow up a broad swathe of protected speech and potentially apply to everything from people criticizing a public official at a political event to a protester telling a specific police officer something like “all cops are bastards.” Such treatment may well cause public officials emotional distress — but it is nevertheless core protected speech on a matter of public concern.
Other bills seek to criminalize publishing someone’s name or address online. The new Florida law, for example, prohibits posting another person’s name or other identifying information online “with the intent that a third party will use the information to: (a) Incite violence or commit a crime against the person; or (b) Threaten or harass the person, placing such person in reasonable fear of bodily harm.”
Under these harsh and overly broad bills, anyone who is seeking to use their voice or join a demonstration might be deterred from exercising their constitutional right to protest or even criminalized for it.
To the extent that any of these bills are meant to stop violence or property destruction, it is worth remembering that those things are already illegal. If those are the government’s goals, these laws are unnecessary. And, if this summer taught us anything, it is that these laws will get abused, ruining lives and wasting taxpayer money.
Given the realities of policing and prosecution, they will undoubtedly have a disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities. It’s no coincidence that many of these bills were introduced by politicians who harshly criticize the Black Lives Matter movement.
In other words, the last thing police officers need is more tools — in the form of anti-protest laws — in their policing toolkit.
Legislators in states with robust protest activity should have one priority: listening to their constituents. But instead of lending an ear, they are imposing a silencing hand. In an era of historic activism, this response isn’t just unconstitutional, it’s fundamentally un-American. The surest way to end protests against racist police violence is to end racist police violence. New laws that only enable further abuses are not the answer.
This article has been updated to include additional information on a recently enacted Oklahoma law that prohibits people from threatening police officers by posting their names online, and to clarify a passage on a similar Florida law.