As students and teachers gather on campuses across the United States to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, their right to assemble and publicly demonstrate may be at stake. In recent months, some conservative state lawmakers and Federals have proposed controversial riot laws in response to protests by the Black Lives Matter movement and other social justice causes.
According to a study by education consultancy EAB, such laws can pose unique problems for colleges and universities as student activism is on the rise.
“We’ve seen thousands of people take to the streets, and we’ve also seen a lot of conservative lawmakers feeling threatened by this,” Judith Scully, a Stetson University law professor and racial justice advocate, told AFP. WUSF Public Media in September. “And their response has been to propose legislation that would limit the ability of individuals to actually exercise their First Amendment rights to protest.”
More than a dozen states have enacted nearly 40 such laws since 2017 that deter protesters from exercising the right to peaceful assembly, according to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL). Legislation ranges from new crime classifications, bigger fines, updated definitions of rioting, banning protests near gas pipelines and other ‘critical infrastructure’ and freeing police from liability in the event of death or injury during a protest, reports the ICNL. .
In Iowa, for example, three bills are currently pending that increase penalties for protest-related actions such as obstructing sidewalks, streets or other public spaces. The proposed legislation introduces new criminal offenses for intentionally defacing or tampering with public property, including monuments or statues, and also strengthens legal protections for drivers who injure protesters who block roads.
The Iowa American Civil Liberties Union condemned the bills, saying they would allow the government to halt progress on racial justice issues and are “completely inconsistent” with the constitutions of the United States and Iowa.
In an effort to see how colleges and universities, which typically champion free speech rights, are responding to new riot laws, PREVIEW Contacted more than 10 higher education institutions in states where protest legislation is pending, proposed, or has been passed.
Only the University of Iowa responded, referring PREVIEW to the school’s free speech webpage, which provides links to state policies and other information.
“Spontaneous and unorganized outdoor demonstration activities may occur unplanned as long as such activities occur without promotion, solicitation, or a deliberate attempt to attract or solicit the public,” the page reads.
One of the strictest pieces of recent riot legislation is Florida’s Combating Public Disorder Act. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis touted the bill as ‘the strongest riot and pro-law enforcement play of legislation in the country” when he signed it into law in April 2021. The bill provides increased penalties for existing crimes committed during what is considered a “violent assembly”, misdemeanor charges for the destruction of public or historical monuments, and a legal defense for drivers who run over a protester if they say they felt threatened.
“It’s going to be very risky to figure out how this law is enforced without starting to really strip the peace gatherings for speaking purposes,” Howard Wasserman, a professor at Florida International University College of Law, told the website. Law360.
Just months later, in September, a federal judge blocked the legislation, saying it was unconstitutional and “encourages arbitrary and discriminatory application.”
“Its vagueness allows those in power to weaponize its enforcement against any group that wishes to express a message that the government disagrees with,” Chief Justice Mark Walker wrote in his dissent. “If this court does not order enforcement, the lawless actions of a few thuggish individuals could effectively criminalize the protected speech of hundreds, if not thousands, of law-abiding Floridians.”
In October, a spokesperson for the governor told media that DeSantis would appeal. In the meantime, Florida currently has another protest-related bill pending which was introduced in January 2022 and gives law enforcement the power to designate “special event zones” and require that event organizers pay “all relevant costs and fees associated with the designation and application.” areas.
Across the country, nearly 50 riot bills are currently pending.●
Mariah Stewart is senior editor for OVERVIEW of diversity.
This article originally appeared in our April 2022 issue.