[Nick Robinson] Our Incredible Shrinkage Right to Manifest


After the recent flurry of conservative Supreme Court rulings on abortion, gun control, and environmental regulation, many Americans are looking for alternatives to the courts to implement democratic change. Yet in recent years, many state legislators — often Republicans — have systematically attempted to restrict other traditional avenues of political participation.

Some of these changes have received wide attention, in particular a slew of new state laws inspired by President Donald Trump’s false claims that he won the 2020 election. These laws limit voting opportunities and set the stage for potential partisan interference in the election. As concerning as these laws are, they are only part of a much larger set of constraints faced by citizens wishing to engage in our democracy. As the country has become increasingly polarized, politicians have targeted opponents’ ability to advance dissenting views.

Consider those who wish to take to the streets to protest the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which allows states to restrict access to abortion, including making the procedure illegal. Since 2017, 45 states have considered more than 200 anti-protest bills, passing 38 of them so far, mostly in reaction to Black Lives Matter and environmental protesters. These laws greatly increase accountability for common forms of peaceful protest. For example, after protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020, Arkansas, Iowa and Tennessee increased the penalty for blocking a sidewalk during a protest. Now, in all three states, a protester can be sentenced to up to a year in prison for this offense.

These laws may also appear to encourage violence. Iowa, for example, enacted a law last year that eliminates civil liability for certain drivers who hit those participating in an unauthorized “protest” on the street. While the regulations don’t protect drivers who “recklessly” or “willfully” hit protesters, laws like these still send a chilling message. Unsurprisingly, a truck in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, drove through a group of pro-choice protesters last month, injuring several. No arrests were made.

Another tradition dear to the United States, the right to boycott, is also targeted. Ever since our colonial boycott of British goods, Americans have long used their consumer power to make their voices heard. However, led by states such as Texas and West Virginia, policymakers have enacted laws prohibiting those who do business with the state government from engaging in fossil fuel industry boycotts, gun manufacturers or Israel. Laws like this are often presented to legislators by lobbyists from these industries or supporters of Israel.

In June, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against an Arkansas newspaper that refused to sign a state pledge that it would not boycott Israel, and the newspaper lost an advertising contract with a university state accordingly. Remarkably, the judges concluded that economic boycotts are not protected by the 1st Amendment because they asserted that they are neither speech nor expressive conduct. The ACLU has pledged to appeal the decision.

It’s not just protests and boycotts that are under threat. Employee activism has long pushed companies to take a stand against injustice, but even those actions are being pushed back. In May, under pressure from employees, the Walt Disney Co. spoke out against Florida’s recently enacted “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which restricts discussion of sexual orientation in schools. Governor Ron DeSantis then successfully led the charge to remove Disney World’s special tax status in the state. The decision was apparently triggered not because the tax statute was bad policy, but because the governor didn’t take kindly to Disney’s criticism.

Taken together, these movements represent a form of intransigence by state officials that creates a climate of fear for those who wish to engage in traditional forms of political mobilization. With the recent Supreme Court ruling on abortion, this divisive environment is likely to worsen. Several states are set to follow Texas’ lead and enact laws allowing private citizens to sue those who help women obtain abortions. While the scope of the Texas law is unclear, it could put activists who help pregnant women to have abortions outside the state in legal jeopardy. This could include something as simple as providing them with information about abortion providers. States that ban abortion will likely continue to step up their efforts to target pro-choice groups.

These attacks on Americans’ ability to engage in their democracy are not isolated or ad hoc – they constitute a greater compression of civic space. Any response will need to be holistic and should include educating fellow citizens about the significance of different types of protest throughout US history. But first, Americans must be made to recognize the magnitude of the danger.

Nick Robinson
Nick Robinson is Senior Legal Counsel at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times. — Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)

By Korea Herald ([email protected])


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