New state laws increase penalties for protest actions in Oklahoma

Peaceful Assembly

As previously reported on the Monitor, several states have proposed or approved new legislation curtailing protests and demonstrations. Recently, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed House Bill 1123 into law, increasing penalties for the the following actions: trespassing on “critical infrastructure” and "willfully destroying" or impeding "operations of the facility". Violators can now face a fine of $10,000 or one year in prison; the penalties can be even higher for destroying or damaging property at an oil or gas company facility. Another bill passed in the Oklahoma House of Representatives extends responsibility to a “person or entity that compensates, provides consideration or remunerates a person for trespassing”. It is believed that the newly-passed Oklahoma state laws aim to prevent or target actions similar to the protest camps over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota that were forcefully dispersed by police in February 2017

In a separate incident, on 16th May 2017 security detail and supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was visiting the U.S, clashed with anti-Erdogan protesters outside the Turkish Ambassador's residence in Washington D.C. Footage from the scene, shows several men running towards the protesters and kicking them, as police attempt to stop the violence. Nine protesters were taken to the hospital and one was in serious condition.

Expression

Dan Heyman, a journalist with the Public News Service, was arrested and charged with "willful disruption of governmental processes" while questioning Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price about the new healthcare bill. Law enforcement officials claimed Heyman got too close to Kellyanne Conway, Special Counsel to the President, who was walking with Price. Heyman was released on bail and is now pending trial.

The American Civil Liberties Union responded to the arrest and charges, stating:

“We need journalists to be able to challenge and question public officials, loudly and persistently. For the government to stand in the way is a frontal assault on the First Amendment and the functioning of our democracy”.

In a positive development, Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill banning the establishment of “free speech zones” at public colleges and universities. The law considers that the exercise of the right to freedom of speech cannot be excluded to one particular place on an academic institution's property. Furthermore, the law states that

"[It] is not the proper role of an institution to attempt to shield individuals from free speech, including ideas and opinions they find offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical or wrong-headed”.

Association

In May 2017, the US Supreme Court declined to review the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s case challenging the state’s open primary elections. In addition, the Court also declined to review a similar case against the state of Montana. Groups in both Hawaii and Montana argued that open primaries violate the parties' constitutional right to freedom of association. The Supreme Court's decision maintains the Ninth Circuit Court's decision that the Democratic Parties in both states did not sufficiently demonstrate that the open primaries impacted their candidates or messages to any extent. 

At the time of writing, the United States remains on the CIVICUS Monitor's Watch List of countries where there is an immediate and developing threat to civic space.