A bill before the Alabama Legislature would allow felony charges against people who step out of line when protesting a controversial speech at a public venue.
Rep. Jack Williams, R-Birmingham, said his bill is an effort to protect freedom of speech, though civil liberties advocates say it would do more harm than good.
“Felony charges in that situation would be very chilling to the First Amendment,” said Randall Marshall, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama.
Williams said his bill, HB94, was inspired by the protests last year at the University of California at Berkeley, where a speech by far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos generated student protests that soon turned into riots.
“There have been numerous events around the country where people have trampled on speakers’ rights because they didn’t agree with the content of the speech,” Williams said.
Under his bill, anyone who commits a crime while attempting to block someone from delivering a speech on public property would face an additional felony charge punishable by a sentence of two to 20 years. It would apply only to speeches attended by more than 50 people.
It’s unclear how the law would have applied to the conflict in Auburn last year, when white supremacist Richard Spencer rented a hall on the Auburn University campus. According to the Opelika-Auburn News, three people were arrested on misdemeanor charges at the event, following a fight.
Attempts to reach the people arrested at the protest were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Williams said the Auburn protests didn’t play a role in the writing of the bill.
“Honestly, I’d forgotten about Auburn until I’d drafted the bill and someone mentioned it to me,” Williams said.
Marshall, the ACLU lawyer, said the bill ignores the nature of public protest.
“Virtually any protest generates a counterprotest,” he said. It’s not uncommon, he said, for a few people at any large protest to face arrest for minor violations such as trespassing, jaywalking or blocking a sidewalk.
“This would open the door to felony prosecution for what is basically protected speech,” he said.
The bill has yet to see action by any committee in the House.