Images of a Lincoln gas station’s windows getting smashed, an insurance building being torched and fireworks exploding on the steps of the County-City Building endure from last summer’s protests against police brutality and racial discrimination.
However, those photos, visually stunning as they were, captured only a small slice of the demonstrations.
Proposed legislation by Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, who says she was inspired to introduce a bill that would increase penalties for rioters and create new criminal statutes related to rioting in part by those scenes, does the same, overlooking existing criminal laws that could be used to prosecute offenders while creating collateral damage with severe impacts on First Amendment rights.
The statement of intent on her LB111 says its purpose “is to define and enact criminal violations related to rioting, aggressive rioting, inciting riots, looting, assault on first responders.” However, existing criminal statutes already cover any and all offenses tied to those suspected of actively participating in a riot.
State law already covers items as specific as assault with a bodily fluid against a public safety officer, one criticism often levied against protesters in Lincoln this summer. Existing criminal laws against people and property are more than sufficient to enforce the criminal acts witnessed when large peaceful protests were coopted by a small number of bad actors and other such instances in the future.
Of greater concern is how the bill criminalizes the act of rioting in far too broad of terms.
Under Albrecht’s bill, anyone who knowingly – an adverb that further muddies the water – participates in a riot can be prosecuted. It classifies a riot as a disturbance “involving an assemblage of three or more persons, which by tumultuous and violent conduct, creates grave danger of substantial damage to property or serious bodily injury to persons.”
That wording opens the door for anyone participating in a protest that escalates to be criminally charged, ACLU of Nebraska attorney Spike Eickholt noted at last week’s hearing on the bill before the Judiciary Committee. As such, it marks clear infringement on people’s First Amendment right to peaceably assemble, regardless of what other individuals may be doing at the gathering.
And the First Amendment concerns with LB111 don’t stop with assembly, going further to criminalize an attempt to “prevent or disrupt a lawful meeting, procession, or gathering … by physical action of verbal utterance.” Again, existing protocols can be used to deal with unruly, disruptive people at such events without turning to newly written criminal laws.
That’s before considering this law, as written, could be weaponized by a government to criminalize dissenting speech under the auspices of disruption.
Accordingly, this proposal misses the mark by only covering part of the problems that stemmed from very small factions who used these demonstrations as an excuse for violence and vandalism – at the expense of the First Amendment rights of innocent participants, not to mention overlooking the need for police reform, too – and should be shelved.