ATLANTA – Critics say two bills in the legislature would potentially target protest marches. The backers of the two bills say that’s not the intention. Both bills have already passed the Senate.
One is a bill that toughens penalties for domestic terrorism. Another toughens penalties for people who attack police officers. But there’s language in both bills that critics say impacts the right to protest peacefully.
Sen. Tyler Harper (R-Ocilla) says his bill is pro-law enforcement, and can be described simply. "If you abide by the law, nothing in this bill affects you," he argued.
Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) says his anti-terrorism bill is designed to protect First Amendment rights of protest.
But critics of the two bills say the legislation could make it easier to arrest protestors and charge them with stiffer crimes – if they obstruct roadways or sidewalks. Andrea Young, director of the Georgia ACLU says the penalties would unwittingly target younger protesters.
"There’s a little more energy, maybe people can get overly enthusiastic, and what otherwise would be a misdemeanor becomes a felony – because a young person was exercising their first amendment rights," Young said Wednesday.
Critics lined up at a House committee hearing Wednesday. "This is fairly un-American provision," said Carlos Moreno, who says he was part of recent protests in Atlanta. "This is something I would expect to see in Russia or China, not in the United States of America,"
Critics note that the terrorism bill stiffens the penalties for crimes driven by ideology – which, they say, could include otherwise lawful protestors.
"Say the Falcons won the Super Bowl," Young said. "If people had been celebrating and they blocked traffic then you wouldn’t have had that penalty. That makes the (legislation) directed at the speech, not the disruption."
Wednesday, House members softened some of the language in the legislation, a process that's expected to continue before it reaches the House floor.
© 2017 WXIA-TV