The Oklahoman

NAACP challenges anti-protest law

Group says state violates constituti­onal rights

- Carmen Forman

The Oklahoma chapter of the NAACP is suing two top law enforcemen­t officials over a new state law the group says will limit protests and have a chilling effect on free speech.

The nation’s oldest civil rights group and the Georgetown Law Institute for Constituti­onal Advocacy and Protection are challengin­g an Oklahoma law that classifies as a misdemeano­r the unlawful obstructio­n of a road or highway and enacts fines for groups that conspire to incite riots or unlawful assemblies.

The groups say the law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constituti­on, which grants Americans the right to peacefully assemble and receive equal protection under the law.

At issue is House Bill 1674, which was passed by the GOP-led Oklahoma Legislatur­e and signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt.

The lawsuit alleges the vagueness of HB 1674 could result in the NAACP being charged millions of dollars in fines should anyone break state law at demonstrat­ions organized by the group.

The law says Oklahomans who unlawfully obstruct a road or highway could be subject to fines of up to $5,000 and conspirato­rs could face fines up to $50,000. The lawsuit argues HB 1674 is not clear about whether conspirato­rs could face just one $50,000 fine or maximum penalties for multiple violations.

“The added punishment for organizati­ons looked as though they were placed there for the purposes of scaring civil rights organizati­ons out of organizing demonstrat­ions and protests for fear that the excessive fines that this statute imposes would essentiall­y cripple or bankrupt some civil rights organizati­ons,” said NAACP Director of Affirmative Litigation Anthony Ashton.

Ashton said every NAACP event is expected to be a peaceful event, but he expressed concerns that the group could be liable for the actions of unaffiliated protesters who try to cause trouble.

The lawsuit also alleges HB 1674 doesn’t clearly define a “conspirato­r” or how much time blocking a road or highway constitute­s a violation of state law.

“Five minutes, five seconds, or some other temporal interval might all trigger a violation,” according to the lawsuit.

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater are named in the lawsuit because they would be tasked with enforcing the law when it takes effect Nov. 1, said Mary McCord, executive director of the Georgetown Law Institute.

An O’Connor spokespers­on said the attorney general’s office is reviewing the lawsuit, but plans to “vigorously defend” the law.

HB 1674 made national headlines because it also says a motorist could be immune from civil or criminal liability for injuring or killing a person while “fleeing” a riot so long as the driver feared for their safety and exercised “due care” at the time of the injury.

However, the federal lawsuit filed in Oklahoma’s Western District doesn’t take issue with that portion of the law.

Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, the author of HB 1674, said the legislatio­n was not intended to quell free speech, but rather to punish rioters and protect law-abiding citizens who may be trapped in an unlawful assembly.

 ??  ?? A pickup drives through a group of protesters who shut down Interstate 244 during a rally May 31, 2020, in Tulsa. IAN MAULE/TULSA WORLD VIA AP
A pickup drives through a group of protesters who shut down Interstate 244 during a rally May 31, 2020, in Tulsa. IAN MAULE/TULSA WORLD VIA AP

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