Efforts to restrict voting rights are deservedly receiving much attention. Too little attention is being paid to efforts to restrict the constitutional right to peaceably protest, including a furtive attempt this week by Indiana lawmakers.
Senate Bill 198, which would make rioting a felony charge, looked like it had been shelved after the bill's clear intent to suppress protest was exposed. But its key language was quietly slipped into SB 187, a bill to protect monuments and statues from vandalism.
“This amendmentwould enhance criminal penalties for protesting and ultimately chill Hoosiers' free speech,” said Katie Blair, advocacy and public policy director for ACLU of Indiana. “It would punish communities as a whole by withholding discretionary funding for public services, including schools and parks, if localities fail to take strict action against protesters.
“Law enforcement already has all the tools needed to protect public safety and prevent violence and property damage,” Blair said. “The real problem lies in how these laws have been selectively used against Black and brown individuals throughout history.”
It's no coincidence the legislation follows Black Lives Matter protests in Fort Wayne, Indianapolis and other cities. The International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, which tracks efforts to restrict protest, reports 31 states have pending anti-protest legislation. Many resemble the five anti-protest bills filed in Indiana.
In a meeting of the House's Courts and Criminal Code Committee Wednesday, Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said the amendment to SB 187, “which kind of becomes the bill, to be honest,” is about protecting history.
“It's a bill that protects monuments; it protects our museums, our structures that we hold dear,” Lehman said.
But Rep. Matt Pierce, a Bloomington Democrat, said the bill sends a signal to state police that vandalism of public monuments should take precedence.
“It is giving them the signal that other types of crime ... might need to go to the end of the line while we deal with these crimes, which you've decided are the most important things in the state,” Pierce said. “It's going to end up creating a lot more problems than we've imagined.”
If SB 187 protects history, it does so at the expense of the First Amendment. It is not needed and should be defeated.