ACLU Statement on Proposed Unlawful Assembly Legislation

The following statement may be attributed to Chris Ott, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin:

Rep. Spiros and Rep. Brandtjen have introduced a package of bills (AB 395, 396, 397)  that represent a direct attack on fundamental First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly. We must stop these anti-American measures.

The Constitution firmly protects protests even when – and especially when – they stir anger, question preconceptions, challenge government policy, and induce dissatisfaction with the status quo. Speech, especially speech during times of unrest and public crisis can be loud, raucous, and even occasionally frightening. The framers of our Constitution understood this – in fact, they understood that it helped to create our country – and they wisely saw it as a critical part of our democracy. Sadly, Reps. Spiros and Brandtjen apparently lack that faith in the American system.

All three bills suffer the same major flaw: they allow anyone participating in a newly defined “riot” to be found guilty – without individual bad intent or action. But under both the First Amendment and traditional common law principles, a state cannot impose responsibility on any individual for the acts of others. Doing so “would impermissibly burden the rights of political association that are protected by the First Amendment.” (Details below.)

Under the proposal from Rep. Spiros and Rep. Brandtjen, just one person with an intent to “riot” at a rally or protest makes everyone nearby guilty. This is a profoundly misguided attempt to prevent any form of protest against our government at all. Reps. Spiros and Brandtjen might wish otherwise, but Americans have a right to speak up that can’t simply be erased.

Other lawmakers and citizens should stay true to two of the founding values of our country – free speech and assembly – and reject this unconstitutional legislation.

For details about previous legal precedent, see N. A. A. C. P. v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886, 931 (1982); see also Long Beach Lesbian & Gay Pride, Inc. v. City of Long Beach, 14 Cal. App. 4th 312, 337 (1993).

Wednesday, September 20, 2017