Freedom of Assembly? Think Again

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Date: 
February 1, 2017
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One of the greatest freedoms enshrined in our Constitution is the freedom of people to peacefully assemble, to march, to air their grievances in public. 

With the seemingly endless protests in Washington, D.C., and around the country since inauguration day, including the Women's March on Washington, you'd think everything was hunky-dory in this department. Hundreds have assembled every night in front of the White House, Trump Tower and/or the U.S. Supreme Court, with companion actions scattered throughout the country, regarding the immigrant ban, Dakota Access Pipeline, cabinet nominees, and Black Lives Matter, among other issues. This, it appears, is how we now spend our weekends. 

As the Washington Post reported earlier this week, protest is the new brunch. 

Enjoy it while you can, folks. This may not last long. Bills in ten states would make it much more difficult, and potentially dangerous, to protest. 

In Iowa, a proposed bill would make it illegal to block a highway. Bills in Michigan and Washington would increase penalties for blocking traffic. In Indiana, a proposed law would direct police to use "any means necessary" to clear protesters from roads. In Minnesota, legislators want to charge protesters for their police protection. A committee hearing on the bill, a video of which was circulated widely on social media, came to a close when angry protesters disrupted the proceedings. The most vocal protester was reportedly a friend of Philando Castile, an African American man who was shot by police in St. Paul last year.  

But wait, there's more! In Colorado, lawmakers would like to increase penalties for environmental protesters, and in Virginia, a proposed bill would increase penalties for protesting to up to $2,500 and a year in jail. Fortunately, the latter bill is likely to be vetoed by the state's Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe. In Missouri, you wouldn't be able to wear a mask or robe to a protest if that bill passes. 

And in North Dakota, proposed legislation would make it permissible for motorists to run over and kill any protester blocking a highway (as long as such vehicular manslaughter is not intentional). You can't make this stuff up. 

But hey, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association is on it. He's put out a handy guide for all those politicians considering repressive bills. The 10 Principles Civil Society Guide: How to Advocate for Better Management of Assemblies is just the thing we need. It provides suggestions, tools and "inspiration" (heaven knows we need that!) to civil society organizations. The companion 10 Principles Implementation Checklist: Rate Your Country's Management of Assemblies is an interactive tool to assess the current state of freedom of peaceful assembly. Might want to make sure those 10 legislatures have a copy.