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Texas Bill Targeting ‘Riots’ Would Crack Down On Right To Protest, Experts Say

Black Lives Matter demonstrators marching up the South Freeway, May 29, 2020.
Andrew Schneider
Houston Public Media
Black Lives Matter demonstrators marching up the South Freeway, May 29, 2020.

A new bill in the Texas legislature purporting to crack down on “riots” would instead stifle people's ability to peacefully protest, experts say.

Senate Bill 912 would penalize someone for participating in a riot, sticking them with the bill for any damage to property, whether the individual demonstrator caused the damage or not.

But Elly Page, senior legal advisor with the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, says Texas law defines a riot very broadly.

"You only need seven people," Page said. "You only need a danger of property damage or injury that that group of seven people poses. You don't actually need violence or destruction. It sort of gives expansive discretion to police and prosecutors to determine when a protest becomes a riot."

The measure is one of dozens of similar bills advancing in state legislatures across the country in the wake of last year's Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

Protests broke out across the country last summer after the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police. Floyd’s killer, former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, was convicted of his murder on Tuesday.

There are currently more than 90 anti-riot bills in 35 state legislatures across the country — at least twice as many that were introduced in previous periods at the beginning of legislative sessions, Page said.

A new law in Oklahoma would grant immunity to any driver who unintentionally kills or injures a protestor while attempting to flee, and increases penalties for demonstrators blocking roadways. Florida, meanwhile, passed some of the toughest new restrictions on protests in the country, providing new protections for police and increasing penalties for violence during demonstrations.

"With this wave of bills," Page said, "lawmakers have made it pretty clear, in their remarks and in the text of the bills themselves, that they are responding to the protests against racism and police violence."

State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, sponsored the bill. A spokesman for Buckingham rejected the criticism, saying that the bills would not target any peaceful protest.

The bill passed unanimously out of committee on Tuesday and is heading for a vote of the full Senate. Four anti-riot bills are currently pending in the Texas Legislature. SB 912 is the furthest along the road to passage.

Nick Hudson, a strategist with ACLU of Texas, said the effect of such broad legislation is to chill people's willingness to protest.

"It criminalizes peaceful protestors who are just exercising their First Amendment rights," Hudson said.

Andrew Schneider / Houston Public Media