A Double Standard

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Not content with eroding the right to vote, Republican legislators in several states now are targeting the right of assembly, a right guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution. What is next? Free speech?

Not if Republicans have their way in Oklahoma, where the GOP-controlled state legislature seems to be defining free speech to include the right to plow a motor vehicle into a crowd of protestors. In the Sooner state, a Republican-backed bill grants immunity to motorists who kill or injure protestors exercising their constitutional right to peaceably assemble. As for the actual exercise of free speech — in which, presumably, some of the peaceably assembled protestors might be engaging —  the Oklahoma legislature appears oblivious. 

Across the United States, Republican-controlled legislatures are cracking down on the right to assemble. The proposed punitive laws are part of a wave of anti-protest legislation that has been introduced by Republicans in the year since Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation following the murder of George Floyd by then-police officer Derrick Chauvin in Minneapolis. According to The New York Times, GOP lawmakers in 34 states have introduced 81 anti-protest bills. 

Many of these bills punish lawful assembly by redefining certain kinds of protests — such as Black Lives Matter demonstrations — as riots. The punitive nature of these bills is enhanced by further measures — such as one in Indiana — barring anyone convicted of unlawful assembly from holding state employment. Similarly, a proposed Minnesota law would prohibit anyone convicted of unlawful protesting from receiving student loans, unemployment benefits, food stamps, or housing assistance. 

In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis — who is trying to out-Trump former president Donald Trump — signed draconian legislation that toughens existing laws governing public disorder. DeSantis called the bill “the strongest anti-looting anti-rioting, pro-law-enforcement piece of legislation in the country.” The new Florida law imposes harsher penalties for existing public disorder crimes. Previous infractions categorized as misdemeanors now become felonies. In other instances, whole new categories of felonies have been created, and defendants cannot be released on bail until they appear before a judge. The law also imposes stiffer penalties for taking down Confederate monuments, and anyone who injures a protestor — by driving into a crowd, for example — will escape civil liability. 

The anti-protest legislation tilts at windmills. The laws are aimed at supposedly violent protestors — often citing Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the death of George Floyd — yet most of those protests were peaceful and involved no property damage nor injuries to civilians or police.  According to The Washington Post — which conducted an exhaustive study of last summer’s protests — the Black Lives Matter demonstrations were remarkably non-violent. Indeed, most of the violence during those demonstrations was directed at protestors by police or counter-demonstrators. 

Rioting in the course of protesting already is unlawful, and many laws are on the books to punish those who engage in violence while demonstrating. Civil rights advocates rightly worry that the new legislation violates the constitutionally guaranteed rights of assembly and free speech, rights protected under the First Amendment. As Vera Eidelman, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union told The New York Times, the current spate of legislation “is consistent with the general trend of legislators responding to powerful and persuasive protests by seeking to silence them rather than engaging with the message of the protests.” Eidelman added, “If anything, the lesson from the last year, and decades, is not that we need to give more tools to police and prosecutors, it’s that they abuse the tools they already have.”

Republicans offer anti-protest legislation as proof they support police. Yet, most of these purported tough law-and-order lawmakers have been noticeably silent or — in some instances — supportive of a truly violent, in fact, deadly, protest in the last year: The storming of the Capitol on January 6 by pro-Trump demonstrators. The actions of prominent Republicans indicate the party’s continuing unwillingness to grapple with the treasonous insurrection that attempted to overturn a legitimate and fair election.

In Congress, Republicans are opposing an investigation of the attack. Recently, sponsors of a conference at Trump’s Miami resort proudly displayed photos of the crowd gathering before the attack. Donors at the event cheered when Trump bragged about the size of the January 6 mob and complained that his supporters should have fought even harder to prevent certification of his electoral defeat. Other Republicans have argued the insurrectionists posed no danger to Senators or Representatives while Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin claimed he would have been worried had the mob contained Black Lives Matter protestors. And, speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February said the left is wrongly placing the blame for the riot on the rioters. One speaker — summing up the views of many others who spoke at the conference — said, “The reason that people stormed the Capitol was because they felt hopeless because of a rigged election.”

Double standards in politics are common. But, the hypocrisy surrounding Republicans who cannot bring themselves to condemn a violent insurrection at the nation’s Capitol — or, worse yet, praise the insurrectionists — while criminalizing peaceful protest — infringing on long-established rights such as assembly and free speech — shatters most existing records for inconsistency. Such hypocrisy is further proof that the modern Republican Party no longer wishes to preserve American democracy.

Posted April 23, 2021


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