Despite how the right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, seven Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania have proposed a bill that would force any protester arrested to pay for police overtime, emergency medical responders, and other costs incurred during the demonstration.
The legislation was strongly influenced by the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and more recent anti-pipeline activity in Pennsylvania.
DeSmog Blog found that the man behind Senate Bill 754, Rep. Scott Martin, has ties to the oil and gas industry, specifically to companies under siege by demonstrators for their plans to erect pipelines through the state of Pennsylvania.
After a conference call with authorities who were on the ground during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Martin began the early work needed to get legislation penalizing demonstrators into the hands of fellow lawmakers, spinning his plan as an attempt to crack down on illegal activity and the substantial expense of protests for taxpayers.
SB 754 states that "a person is responsible for public safety response costs incurred by a State agency or political subdivision as a result of the State agency’s or political subdivision’s response to a demonstration if, in connection with the demonstration, the person is convicted of a felony or misdemeanor offense.”
Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union, told The Intercept that while it is common law to punish people for crimes they are individually charged with, the bill "expands it … to allow the government entity, like say, a state or it could be the National Guard, it could be the police department, to determine, to leave it up to them as to whether or not they want to attempt to recover additional costs that are associated with the protest but that are not necessarily related to the specific crime that the individual was convicted of.”
She said her fear is that, if passed, this new bill would force people to bear the burden of crimes they didn't commit.
In addition, Randol notes that the bill is explicitly designed to attack protesters, which doesn't sit well with the U.S. Constitution.
"Public protests are very strictly protected in constitutional law,” she explained. “We’re all sensitive to costs and to what that does to a tax bill or the kind of stress and strain it puts on our first responders. But you can’t have those costs be borne on the back of people who are protesting and engaging in their First Amendment protected rights to speech and assembly.”
Critics of SB 754 have also pointed out that it doesn't address the cause and effect nature of protests in general. After Philadelphia's hefty $3 million bill for protests in response to President Donald Trump's inauguration and rapid-fire executive orders came to public attention, city spokesman Mike Dunn made it clear that this was to be expected given the current administration's policies.
He told Philly Mag that although the demonstrations had placed "an increased burden on our police force,” they “are the direct result of rushed White House policy announcements and implementation. They highlight how important it is for the White House to fully vet policies before they are imposed, for Congress to insist on its legislative oversight as well, and for our federal representatives to open their doors to their constituents.”
Part of being the government of a democracy is empowering citizens when they choose to act according to their Constitutional rights. Freedom of speech is one of the pillars of a working democracy, and to impose laws that make it easier to punish those engaging in peaceful public discourse only makes the U.S. a weaker nation. Combating violence at protests is one thing, but SB 754 is another thing altogether.
Banner and thumbnail credit: Reuters photographer Stephanie Keith