The civil rights and Vietnam protests changed America. Today, they might be illegal.
By Margaret Sullivan
Sep 24 2017
What’s the state of free speech in America?
Sanford Ungar, who teaches about it at Harvard and Georgetown, has a simple, depressing answer.
“It’s a mess,” he says.
It’s not just the problems on college campuses where high-profile speakers haven’t been allowed to talk. It’s not just what happened in Charlottesville, where a counterprotester was run over and killed. It’s not just President Trump’s insistent call for the firings or suspensions of NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence.
An insidious problem also is developing in dozens of states where legislatures are considering — and sometimes approving — new laws that restrict free speech.
“They are criminalizing things that are pretty routine,” Ungar told me. “Much of the activism of the Vietnam and civil rights era would be completely illegal” under the new laws.
The lunch-counter sit-ins that were a staple of civil rights protests in the ’60s would, under some new legislation, be punishable because they “disrupt commerce.” And the demonstrations that brought thousands into the streets of major cities to protest the Vietnam War would be a crime because they blocked traffic.
Twenty-seven states have considered such legislation, he said. Twelve bills have become law, and many others remain under consideration.
Some of the bills sound perfectly acceptable at first because their purported aim is tranquility.
But here’s the problem: Meaningful protest isn’t always as mild as milk. The new laws have little tolerance for the tumultuous reality of dissent.
In Iowa, for example, the legislature considered a bill to punish protesters who block highway traffic with up to five years in prison.
In North Dakota, the governor signed a bill that would punish masked individuals in any public forum who are trying to conceal their identity.
In Arizona, the state Senate approved a bill that would add “rioting” to organized crime statutes, making participation in a protest that turns into a riot a possible criminal racketeering offense.
Florida even considered a bill that, in some cases, would exempt drivers from liability if they struck a protester.
Traci Yoder, National Lawyers Guild director of research and education, predicts that whether this wave of bills ends up passing or not, the effect may be the same — to tamp down dissent.
“Few people would be as willing to protest if they thought they could easily be arrested, fined, imprisoned or even killed,” Yoder wrote. And most regular citizens aren’t keeping track of the details, she said, but may know that the penalties have been vastly toughened.
It amounts to a nationwide movement to chill speech.