Kentucky GOP wants to criminalize interference in legislature after transgender protests

By | March 15, 2024

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) – Kentucky’s Republican Legislature is taking steps to criminalize disruptive protests inside the Capitol, raising concerns among advocates that their right to challenge the authority will be chilled.

Before major votes on polarizing issues, large numbers of protesters have waved signs and shouted synchronized chants at the foot of the stairs that lawmakers climb to reach the House of Representatives or Senate chambers, creating a din that ripples through the ornate statehouse echoes. Activists sometimes pack committee rooms in the Capitol Annex or crowd the galleries to monitor floor debates.

Teachers, union members and abortion rights advocates have organized massive demonstrations, but it was a protest against anti-transgender legislation — which last year resulted in the arrest of some demonstrators on charges of criminal trespass — that prompted the Kentucky House this week to pass new laws to approve. criminal offenses for disrupting legislative procedures. The bill is now being considered by the Senate.

Republican state Rep. John Blanton sees protesting as “as American as apple pie” and “part of the foundation of who we are, and I fully support that.” But he said there must be consequences when protesters “cross the line” and become disruptive.

“The purpose of House Bill 626 is to ensure that the General Assembly has the opportunity to enact legislation without interference from people who want to prevent us from doing our work on behalf of our constituents,” Blanton said.

Other state lawmakers have also criminalized disruptions. Georgia has a law that is being challenged in court that makes a third of these violations a misdemeanor. Until 2020, people in Kansas who wanted to organize an event at the statehouse, including a protest, had to have a legislative sponsor and permit, and portable signs were prohibited. The rules were relaxed after a lawsuit, allowing portable signs as long as people don’t attach them to a wall or railing. A permit or sponsor is not necessary, unless someone wants to reserve a specific space such as a committee room.

Under Kentucky’s bill, “disorderly or disruptive conduct” intended to disrupt or prevent lawmakers from conducting business would be a misdemeanor for a first offense and a misdemeanor for repeat offenses. The violations also include obstructing a lawmaker or aide from entering a legislative space or refusing to leave a legislative facility with the intent to prevent lawmakers from conducting business.

Activists fear this could affect their rights to challenge the authority.

“If lawmakers willfully eliminate civil rights, what other options do Kentuckians have to protest their actions?” said Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, a Kentucky-based LGBTQ+ advocacy group that led the opposition to the anti-transgender law.

ACLU of Kentucky Legal Director Corey Shapiro said he is concerned that “people could be arrested for simply expressing their views to lawmakers.”

Lawmakers generally can criminalize actions that interfere with their orderly business operations, provided “reasonable alternative dissent” is available, said Joshua Douglas, a constitutional law professor at the University of Kentucky.

“My concern with the bill is that it does not define ‘disorderly or disruptive conduct,’ so it could be viewed as too vague under the First Amendment,” Douglas said. “Laws restricting speech must be written precisely so that it is clear what speech conduct is prohibited for a good enough government purpose.”

Twenty years ago, when Democrats still controlled the House of Representatives, hundreds of hymn-singing protesters urged lawmakers to support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, which voters then overwhelmingly approved.

Now the opposition is against the Republican bills. Teachers crowded the Capitol a few years ago to protest pension legislation and other measures they saw as anti-public education. Abortion rights advocates spoke out to no avail as Republican lawmakers passed anti-abortion bills, culminating in the state’s near-total ban.

Tensions were high last year when the House of Representatives overrode Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of the bill banning access to gender-affirming health care for young transgender people. As prolonged chanting rang out from the gallery, nearly two dozen protesters were removed and charged with third-degree criminal trespass.

“Many of you had to push your buttons last year and wanted to speak, having your voices silenced for your constituents,” Blanton told his colleagues in the House of Representatives on Monday. “Because we just had to go ahead and vote, it got so out of hand. So they tried to hinder our process.”

Blanton, a retired state police major, said the proposed new criminal offenses would be more appropriate than violating statutes because the Capitol is a public place. Of the 19 people arrested last year, only one went to trial and was ordered to pay a $1 fine along with court costs. Four others have pleaded guilty and the other cases are still pending, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

As for how law enforcement officers would interpret a protester’s intentions in enforcing the measure, their first response would be to observe and, if they can identify people who are being disruptive, ask them to leave, Blanton said.

“They don’t just go out there and start randomly arresting people,” Blanton said. “We’ve never seen that happen here.”

Such reassurances have not allayed activists’ concerns. “From my personal experience, state troopers are nothing if not antsy when it comes to protesters,” Hartman said.

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Associated Press writers Jeff Amy in Atlanta and John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas contributed to this report.

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