March 17, 2022

Doug Richards | 11Alive | March 17, 2022

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ATLANTA — A bill to tighten government controls over civil protests could become law this year. Republicans passed the bill in the Senate this week. It addresses issues raised by protests in Atlanta over the last two years.

There were well-attended protests in the summer of 2020 after the killing of Rayshard Brooks during his confrontation with an Atlanta police officer in a Wendy’s parking lot.

However, after the peaceful protests started, an arsonist torched the restaurant. Days later an eight-year-old girl, Secoriea Turner, died from gunfire after a crowd had gathered nearby.

"The end result of that was establishing a condition of chaos that emboldened criminals," Sen. Randy Robertson of Columbus told Senators this week.

The former sheriff's deputy is behind the bill that would add even more criminal penalties when protests turn violent. Christopher Bruce of the American Civil Liberties Union said it goes too far.

"This is not a Republican bill or a Democratic bill. This is an un-American bill," Bruce said Thursday.

Robertson’s bill would:

  • Require protesters to apply for permits first – giving cities three business days to issue them.

  • It would add penalties for any assembly of two or more persons "who convey any threat that is severe… and objectively offense… specifically directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action."

  • It would also make cities liable to lawsuits if they fail to control unlawful assemblies that get dangerous

"This is needed legislation if you want to live in a safe community," Robertson told senators, before the bill passed on Crossover Day.

"Do these provisions... incentivize counties or municipalities to crack down on protest?" Sen. Michelle Au (D-Johns Creek) asked Robertson.

"No, ma'am," he answered. "What this does is give citizens the perfect space and the perfect opportunity to go out and exercise (their) right to free speech."

Bruce said the provision, making cities liable for damages from protests, would do exactly what Au suggested.

"Any time your first amendment right is threatened, we need to step up and question your government why. This is one of those type of bills. You need to make sure you have the right to protest on any area, anytime," Bruce said.

Republicans in the Senate passed the protest bill on a party-line vote. It is poised to have the same kind of success if it comes up for a vote in the House between now and when the general assembly adjourns April 4.