A bill that would allow police and other first responders in Nassau County, New York, to sue protesters for harassment passed the legislature on Monday by a 12-6 vote. The bill still needs County Executive Laura Curran’s approval before it becomes law.
The bill is controversial because it would hold protesters accountable for their actions at a demonstration. The legislation is aimed at discouraging protesters from engaging in actions and words that are designed to provoke a violent response from police.
Civil rights groups claim it would interfere with protesters’ First Amendment rights and isn’t necessary because it’s already illegal to harass the police or other first responders.
Reading from the bill’s text, Brian Sullivan, president of Nassau County Correction Officers Benevolent Association, said the law was necessary because of a “widespread pattern of physical attacks and intimidation directed at the police.”
But neither union officials nor the legislative text cite specific examples from Nassau County, which is outside New York City on Long Island.
Tracey Edwards, the NAACP’s regional director, said: “What you are doing with this bill is you are taking this profession and you are putting that chosen profession above all of those people who fought during the Civil Rights movement.” How does allowing cops to sue people put them above protesters? Protesters have the exact same right as the cops now have. And that, apparently, is the problem.
One commenter argued that the bill’s lack of detailed definitions of harassment, menacing and other conduct would give officers too much power to pursue a lawsuit. That commenter cited as a hypothetical that under the proposed provisions, Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of George Floyd’s murder, would be able to sue bystanders who yelled at him as he pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck.
According to the legislative text, officers can pursue civil penalties of $25,000 per violation or a total of $50,000 if those violations occurred during a riot.
That’s a dishonest strawman argument. George Floyd died and Chauvin was convicted of the crime. The idea that Chauvin has any standing to sue bystanders is absurd.
That’s the quality of argument against this bill. Protesters have enjoyed practical immunity from charges relating to any actions designed to provoke police into a violent response. Hundreds of protesters arrested last summer all across the country harassed — even assaulted — the police, and even though they were arrested, they were later released by prosecutors unwilling to prosecute.
Now the police in Nassau County have recourse to sue.
Particular care must be taken when writing legislation that in any way touches upon the First Amendment rights of anyone. That’s why County Executive Curran wants the New York attorney general “to review and provide some advice” before she will sign it.
The hysteria generated by civil rights advocates who say that this bill would somehow infringe on anyone’s freedom of speech is absurd. Requiring people to take responsibility for their actions when engaged in a lawful demonstration is hardly “infringement,” unless you want the cops to be sitting ducks at violent protests.