A pair of 'pro-police' GOP bills in Missouri draw scrutiny from free speech advocates

Republican lawmakers in Missouri are looking to pass two bills this month that they say better protect both residents and law enforcement officers from “violent protesters.”

But critics say the measures will curtail the free speech rights of protesters, and effectively act as retaliation against demonstrators following the racial unrest surrounding the police killings of Black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Missouri state Senate bills S.B. 26 and S.B. 66 aim to expand penalties for protesters obstructing traffic or vandalizing monuments and make it harder to cut police budgets, among other things. But progressive activists say that instead of quelling protests, these bills will only rile up more people.

“Coupled together, this legislation will ironically and rightfully bring on more protests as we continually and indefensibly fail to hold bad officers accountable and ignore those voices in the streets fighting for civil rights,” Sara Baker, policy director of the ACLU of Missouri, told Yahoo News.

Baker described the “anti-protest bills” as “nothing new in Missouri.”

“After the Ferguson uprising [in 2014], our state Legislature moved swiftly to file a slew of legislative attempts to silence Black and brown voices calling for justice,” Baker said. “At the same time, the Legislature moved to give police officers special, enhanced protections — further eroding community trust.”

Police advance through a cloud of tear gas toward demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown on August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Police in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 17, 2014, advance through a cloud of tear gas toward demonstrators protesting the killing of Michael Brown. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

S.B. 66, the more contentious bill of the two, initially contained a proposal giving immunity to individuals who run over protesters, effectively granting the “stand your ground” defense to vehicles. That plan has since been removed.

The parts that remain include an amendment to the current law that would impose a misdemeanor charge on individual protesters who block traffic, while those who join an unlawful assembly face felony charges on the same level as rioting.

Republican state Sen. Rick Brattin, who proposed S.B. 66, said that protesters’ rights do not extend to blocking traffic.

“To think that your right to protest enables you the right to stop traffic and literally stop people’s ability to move about freely in this nation is a gross misunderstanding of our constitutional rights,” Brattin said in a committee hearing on Jan. 25.

The bill also prevents municipalities from decreasing their law enforcement budgets by more than 12 percent relative to the proposed budgets of other departments in a given municipality. Many see this last part as a response to the “defund the police” movement, which encouraged communities to restructure police budgets by investing more in community-oriented services.

But Brattin said the legislation’s purpose is to protect law enforcement. He declined to comment directly to Yahoo News, but offered a previous statement on the bill’s intent.

“Our men and women in law enforcement are on the frontline of our communities, keeping us safe and protecting our families,” the statement said. “The Defund the Police movement is a dangerous experiment that will lead to more violent crime and hurt the very communities it claims to help.”

A demonstrator shakes hands with a police officer during a protest on May 31, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
A demonstrator shakes hands with a police officer during a protest in Kansas City, Mo., on May 31, 2020. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Law professor John Inazu of Washington University in St. Louis believes the proposed restrictions in S.B. 66 go too far.

“This is a very draconian piece of legislation that is doing far more than it needs to do,” Inazu said to Student Life, the university’s independent paper.

Inazu, citing the 2014 death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by a white officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, argues that officials don’t understand the law “as it’s written.”

“There were federal court proceedings where federal judges were asked questions on how law enforcement was enforcing the unlawful assembly provisions, and they were not able to answer under oath what those provisions are,” Inazu said.

“I have asked law enforcement officials, ‘How do you know when an assembly is unlawful?’ They’ve told me, ‘When the assembly is peaceable we allow it, and when it turns non-peaceable, we shut it down.’ But that’s not what the statute says.”

Current Missouri law requires that at least seven people agree to violate the law and use “force or violence” in order for police officers to deem an assembly unlawful.

But some Missouri law enforcement officials believe setting new “parameters” will make things better for all.

“This is a way to protect everybody's free speech," said Jay Schroeder, a spokesperson for the St. Louis County police union and the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police. “I think it's basically just to set some parameters for people to peacefully protest and protect everyone involved in the protest.”

“The right to peacefully protest is a vital constitutional protection,” Brattin, the state senator, added. “But destroying property and violating other citizens’ constitutional rights is not peacefully protesting. It creates dangerous situations and is often used to intimidate and silence others who disagree.”

Protesters raise their hands in the middle of a roadway on August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. (Getty Images)
Protesters in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 17, 2014. (Getty Images)

The other bill moving through the state Legislature, S.B. 26, which has already passed in the Senate, would create a “law enforcement bill of rights” for officers under investigation. It would shield police more than ordinary civilians by adding protections for those who are under investigation or questioned in a way that could result in disciplinary action or dismissal. The bill also allows for citizens to sue cities that cut police budgets.

Republican state Sen. Bill Eigel, who proposed the bill, said it was inspired by local demonstrations last June in which protesters blocked Interstate 70 in St. Charles, Mo. The incident created a logjam of traffic and a complex issue for officers, something Eigel called a “teachable moment.”

“There is no right that you or I have that can come at the expense of the physical safety of our fellow citizens,” Eigel said, adding that S.B. 26 addresses the “chaos that ensues” when protesters block roadways.

But social justice activists say protest doesn’t come without disruption.

The Rev. Darryl Gray, a criminal justice activist and chairman of a St. Louis jails task force, recalls being arrested several times in the past while participating in civil disobedience. If this bill had been law decades ago, Gray believes, he would have spent significantly more time in jail than he did.

“I will go to jail again if I feel that we have to go to that extreme,” Gray said. “These types of bills force us to the edge.”

"I grew up in an era where I watched Black people being sprayed by water hoses for protesting. Dogs being sicced on them for protesting," said John Bowman, president of the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP, at one of the hearings for S.B. 26. “I hate to see that we are moving towards using legislative actions not only to circumvent the will of the voters but to silence voters.”

Protesters and police officers in St. Louis, Missouri stare each other down on September 16, 2017. (Getty Images)
Protesters and police officers stare each other down on Sept. 16, 2017, in St. Louis. (Getty Images)

Elsewhere in the country, similar legislation that restricts protesting has passed in the last few years. In South Dakota, S.B. 176, which became law in 2020, enables officials to prohibit protests of more than 20 people on public lands in certain circumstances. In Tennessee, S.B. 902, which passed in 2018, imposes a fine on protesters who obstruct an emergency vehicle from accessing a street or highway. And in Oklahoma, H.B. 1123, which took effect in 2017, punishes protesters who willfully trespass on “critical infrastructure.”

While the proponents of Missouri’s S.B. 26 and S.B. 66 say the bills aim to increase protection of citizens at times of heightened tension, free speech advocates contend that the laws violate Americans’ First Amendment rights. Both bills currently sit in the Missouri Legislature awaiting action.

“S.B. 26 will broaden the definition of ‘unlawful assembly’ to the point that it will damage First Amendment rights,” Mo Del Villar, policy associate of the ACLU of Missouri, wrote in a letter to the Missouri Senate Judiciary Committee, provided to Yahoo News.

“S.B. 66 creates new crimes and enhances existing penalties in a direct attempt to limit speech,” Villar wrote in another letter. “S.B. 66 is a threat to constitutional values.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images (3)


Read more from Yahoo News: