Thousands gathered outside the State Capitol to protest police brutality and racial injustice as lawmakers met for the 2020 legislative session on June 19, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Wide-ranging legislation aimed at cracking down on rioting protesters in Georgia that criminal-justice advocates say could trample on free-speech rights faced debate in the General Assembly Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, contains several proposals to punish vandalism and violence during protests such as those seen last summer in response to high-profile fatal shootings by police.

It seeks to “look at and redefine what peaceful assemblies were,” Robertson said, by making it a felony with fines and prison time to commit violent acts in gatherings of seven people or more, block a highway or road and deface public structures like monuments and cemeteries.

It would also hold city and county governments liable in civil court for interfering in a police agency’s protest enforcement, require permits for protests and rallies, block local officials from reducing police budgets by 30% or more in a year and provide protections for volunteer groups like “neighborhood watches” to assist police in protest enforcement.

“This is actually a good piece of legislation,” said Robertson, a retired major with the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office. “All we have to do is look at today and look at the past and the future we’re moving into, and I think everybody understands the necessity of this.”

Representatives from several different groups focused on civil liberties, free speech, criminal defense and county finances strongly opposed Robertson’s bill during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday.

The Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers argued the bill could give legal cover to vigilante and militia groups like the Proud Boys to intervene in protests with weapons, threats and violence, such as has been seen in recent protests including the fatal “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.

“This portion of the bill seems to goad that appalling behavior with the promise of immunity,” said Mazie Lynn Causey, policy advocate for the defense lawyers’ association. “It is unnecessary.”

Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and the Southern Poverty Law Center all noted passing the bill could spur a flood of costly lawsuits challenging the measure on constitutional grounds – likewise for local governments suddenly on the hook for violent acts committed at gatherings as small as two people.

“This seems to make county governments and other local governments a guarantor for the public for the safety and property damage protection, which is a dramatic change from the way the law currently stands,” said Larry Ramsey, deputy counsel with the county commissioners’ association. “And obviously, to open up those floodgates, there are costs associated with that.”

Robertson dismissed concerns by those groups, calling their agendas antithetical to the duties of law enforcement officers to ensure public safety and peace.

“With the ACLU coming in with their new mission of cherry-picking when free speech is free speech and when free speech is not, I would not have expected any less of them,” Robertson said. “And to have the criminal defense attorneys come in and do theirs, it was no surprise either.”

Robertson’s bill comes after protests against police brutality and racial injustice rocked many U.S. cities in the summer of 2020, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer who kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes during an arrest.

Scores of largely peaceful protests in Atlanta were also peppered with high-profile acts of vandalism that saw some demonstrators set fires, destroy cars and spur police to deploy tear gas and other counter-protest measures. One Atlanta police officer was injured by a four-wheeler during a protest.

The protests prompted widespread calls for reforms to policing and budgetary priorities across the U.S. and in Georgia by Democratic lawmakers who have gained bipartisan support for overhauling the state’s citizen’s arrest law, while pushing for an end to no-knock warrants and better use-of-force training.

Recent protests also brought backlash from conservative leaders who focused on the violent elements in some protests, citing property destruction and police defiance as motivation to staunchly back law enforcement officials – particularly by resisting calls by some criminal justice advocates to reduce funding for local police agencies.

The Georgia House of Representatives last week passed a measure by state Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, that would limit most local governments from reducing funds for police by more than 5% over a 10-year span. It now awaits consideration in the Georgia Senate.