The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The Fourteenth Amendment makes this prohibition applicable to state governments. But it seems some PA legislators want people to pay for one of those guaranteed rights-the right to assemble peaceably. SB 754, introduced by Republican Senator Scott Martin and six other Republicans on August 16th, would force protesters to pay police overtime and other fees associated with rallies. Below is an excerpt from the bill:
“A person is responsible for public safety response costs incurred by a State agency or political subdivision as a result of the State agency’s or political subdivision’s response to a demonstration if, in connection with the demonstration, the person is convicted of a felony or misdemeanor offense. In addition to any other right of action and any other remedy provided by law, a State agency or political subdivision that incurs costs in responding to a demonstration may bring an action against a person described in section 4 to recover the response costs and related legal, administrative and court expenses. All costs owed may be determined by a court of competent jurisdiction.”
The proposed bill has drawn criticism on all sides. Legislative Director of the ACLU of PA Liz Randol says the law would infringe upon a person’s constitutional rights and would serve to depress turnout during rallies. (Which I would posit is exactly its intent.) “People can be fined and charged, liable for costs associated with a particular crime they committed. That’s normal,” Randol noted. “What’s different is that it expands it … to allow the government entity, like say, a state or it could be the National Guard, it could be the police department, to determine, to leave it up to them as to whether or not they want to attempt to recover additional costs that are associated with the protest but that are not necessarily related to the specific crime that the individual was convicted of.”
Democratic nominee for District Attorney Larry Krasner put out a statement saying, “Of all the activities to single out, who would pick out speech and protest for extraordinary punishment? It’s what this country was built on. This sort of legislation has no place in our democracy.” Republican DA candidate Beth Grossman also expressed skepticism about the bill and questioned which agency would seek the fees and how they would be assigned to individual convicted protesters. “Are you going to seek the entire amount against one person?” Grossman said. “I see a lot of challenges and problems down the line for that.”
Language in SB 754 shows that it was most likely inspired by anti-pipeline protests. The bill includes extensive details regarding costs associated with demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, citing specific figures, such as the “331,721 hours of response support” by police and the National Guard. It should be noted that Senator Martin represents the 13th District encompassing Lancaster County, which has become a hotbed of protest activity due to the Atlantic Sunrise and Mariner 2 East pipelines. Martin is known to have close ties to pipeline lobbyists and once worked for a lobbying firm representing fossil fuel giants such as Gulf Oil and Sunoco Logistics. (Sunoco Logistics is currently working on the Mariner 2 East.)
SB 754 proposed by Senator Martin is obviously born out of special interest and aimed at suppressing the voices of concerned citizens like you and me. But protesters take heart. Erica Mines of the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice says she expects such regulations to embolden protesters. “In the last couple years”, she said, “No protesters involved with REAL Justice who’d been arrested had actually been convicted.
Senator Martin may be one of those who suffer from the delusion that protesters are paid. I guess if you’re speaking on behalf of the fossil fuel industry that may be true. But if you’re simply exercising your rights as a citizen without a wealthy PAC or hefty campaign contribution, it looks like Senator Martin wants you to open up your wallet.
posted by Amy Levengood