Rights Groups: Georgia ‘Terrorism’ Bill Targets Right To Protest
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State legislation introduced in Georgia would expand what is considered “domestic terrorism” and make it possible for state authorities to further criminalize Muslim and immigrant rights groups, which may engage in boycotts, sit-ins, and other forms of protest.
The American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Georgia, Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) in Atlanta, and Project South condemned SB 1, which they argued is “in line with a national trend of state-level legislation written to crack down on protests and suppress the freedom of speech and right to peaceably assemble that is granted by the First Amendment.” They added, “Bills like this exist in eighteen other states.”
Azadeh Shahshahani, a legal and advocacy director for Project South, called the timing of the legislation “significant because we’re seeing a number of protests nationally.”
Mass mobilizations occurred around the inauguration of President Donald Trump. More than 60,000 people demonstrated as part of the Women’s March event in Atlanta. Thousands protested against the travel ban targeted against Muslims and immigrants.
Shahshahani pointed out the legislation provides “a lot of discretion to law enforcement” to go after people by broadening definitions of what constitutes a “terroristic threat.” The country already is in an era, where there is “significant surveillance” of activists, especially Muslims.
Recently, Shahshahani became aware that the local police have interrogated Muslims about their political beliefs. The proposed state legislation will only increase the targeting of Muslim activists and coerce them to censor themselves in public and on social media.
The legislation, introduced by Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, states “domestic terrorism” is “any violation of, or attempt to violate, the laws of this state or of the United States,” which is “intended or reasonably likely to cause serious bodily injury or kill any individual or group of individuals.”
It additionally includes attempts to “disable or destroy critical infrastructure as part of a single unlawful act or a series of unlawful acts which are interrelated by distinguishing characteristic.” What is meant by “disable” is not defined.
Are demonstrators “disabling” “critical infrastructure” when they surround businesses or government institutions and block access in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience?
Under the bill, someone would commit the offense of a “terroristic threat” if they threaten to “commit any crime of violence, including, but not limited to, domestic terrorism.” They may have committed the offense if they cause a “serious public inconvenience.”
What if someone gets on a bullhorn and says, “We’re shutting this down!” and disrupts access to a location. Did that person commit the offense of a “terroristic threat”?
What is a “public inconvenience”? Protest is typically inconvenient and that is often the point.
Notably, the legislation says “not limited to” “domestic terrorism.” There are acts, which the bill does not state or contemplate, which are not “domestic terrorist” acts but could lead one to be guilty of committing a “terroristic threat.” In that sense, it would be very easy for someone to potentially violate this legislation.
“If you are an average person or average citizen trying to make a decision about whether to attend any type of protest,” Shahshahani said, “This type of legislation could dissuade you.” Plus, if an act of violence takes place at the protest, everyone could be targeted as co-conspirators or accomplices in the act.
The legislation would create a list of “suspected terrorists” as well as a homeland security institution that would collect “identifying information.” Individuals on the list could be anyone “engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism.” Yet, the language is vague enough to leave one concerned about how this might be wielded against protest organizers.
Furthermore, state legislators introduced anti-protesting legislation known as the “Back the Badge” bill. It is essentially Blue Lives Matter-style policy for law enforcement. It would “increase the punishment to protesters who block public passages, such as highways, streets, and sidewalks from a misdemeanor of high and aggravated nature and allow prosecutors to seek up to $5,000 in fines or 12 months in jail for violators,” according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Republican State Senator Tyler Harper indicated the legislation is intended to coerce citizens into going through a permitting process and get approval from government first before protesting.
The fact that this legislation was sponsored by many of the same legislators behind the “domestic terrorism” legislation only fuels the argument that the anti-terrorism bill will be used to suppress acts of dissent, which the government would like to discourage and better control.
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