United States: UN expert decries new laws targeting peaceful and Black Lives Matter protesters

Geneva, May 05,  2021.- The adoption of new state laws in Florida and Oklahoma, among others, aimed at suppressing racial justice protests and the Black Lives Matter movement seems to violate international law and the US constitution’s protection of the right to peaceful assembly, a UN human rights expert said today.

Clément Voule, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to peaceful assembly and of association, said the laws were riddled with vaguely defined offences and draconian penalties.

“Vague definitions of ‘riot’, ‘mob intimidation’, and ‘obstruction’ as set out in these laws provide excessive discretion to law enforcement authorities to intimidate and criminalize legitimate protest activities,” Voule said. “Any restrictions on this fundamental freedom must be a narrowly and clearly defined.”

The new laws in Florida and Oklahoma appear to have been enacted as part of an ongoing effort to curtail peaceful protest and the racial justice protests that took place across the country following the May 2020 killing of George Floyd. Both laws target street protests, which predominantly characterized the racial justice protests.

The new laws are part of a wave of legislation supposedly aimed at restricting racial justice protests in the United States. At least 93 anti-protest bills have been introduced in 35 states since May 2020. In addition to the new laws in Florida and Oklahoma, draft anti-protest laws are moving towards enactment in at least seven other states.

“I am afraid that the adoption of anti-protests laws in Florida and Oklahoma may be part of a snowball effect which started in 2017 with anti-protest legislation spreading through the country. I strongly urge all states to refrain from going down the same path,” Voule said.

The new offence of “mob intimidation” established in Florida criminalizes three or more people who act with “common intent” and “threaten to use imminent force” to “attempt to compel” any person “to assume, abandon, or maintain a particular viewpoint”.

“Seeking to change the viewpoints of others, including government officials, is essential to the act of protesting and the right to peaceful assembly,” Voule said. “Such a sweeping definition could seemingly cover any legitimate advocacy and protest, even by a group as small as three people, that law enforcement authorities deem ‘threatening’.”

Under the new law in Oklahoma, organizations found to have “conspired” with individuals who are found guilty of certain offences – including «unlawful assembly”, “riot”, and “incitement to riot ” all of which are broadly defined under existing law – can be fined 10 times the maximum amount of fine authorized for the individual’s offence.

The laws also seem to create an environment enabling violence against protesters by creating new legal immunity for people who injure or even kill street peaceful protesters. The Oklahoma law protects from civil and criminal liability a driver who recklessly injures or kills someone while “fleeing from a riot.” Under the Florida law, a defendant in a civil lawsuit can avoid liability by establishing that the injury or death they caused “arose from” conduct by someone “acting in furtherance of a riot.” Civil society advocates have pointed out that such immunity will provide incentives for the actions of white supremacy vigilante groups and allow further violence against Black Lives Matter protesters.

“The targeting of the Black Lives Matter movement, while creating legal protections for those who attack them, is deeply disturbing,” Voule said.

UN experts have repeatedly raised their concerns about excessive force used by the police in the context of peaceful demonstrations. They have called on the Government to address systemic racism and racial bias in the criminal justice system and recalled that authorities must protect participants in peaceful assemblies against possible abuse by non-State actors. They also called on the US Government to adopt wide ranging reforms to put an end to police violence, and vigorously address systemic racism and racial discrimination.

This statement is endorsed by Ms. Dominique DAY (Chairperson); Mr. Ahmed REID; Mr. Michal BALCERZAK; Mr. Sabelo GUMEDZE; Mr. Ricardo A. SUNGA III; Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent and Mr. Morris TIDBALL-BINZ, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

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