Frankfort, KY – A bill that would make it a crime to taunt or insult law enforcement officers during a riot was advanced by a Kentucky Senate committee last week.
The proposed legislation would enhance punishments for offenses related to rioting, to include a potential punishment of up to three months in prison for any suspect who “accosts, insults, taunts, or challenges a law enforcement officer with offensive or derisive words” or makes “gestures or other physical contact that would have a direct tendency to provoke a violent response from the perspective of a reasonable and prudent person,” WJW reported.
Those convicted would could also potentially be cut off from public assistance for up to three months, and would be subject to a $250 fine.
“This is not about lawful protest in any way, shape, form, or fashion,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Danny Carroll (R-Benton) told the Courier Journal. “This country was built on lawful protest, and it’s something that we must maintain — our citizens’ right to do so. What this deals with are those who cross the line and commit criminal acts.”
Carroll said the bill is necessary to help protect first responders, community members, and public and private property.
“In these riots, you see people getting up in officers’ faces, yelling in their ears, doing everything they can to provoke a violent response,” Carroll continued. “I’m not saying the officers do that, but there has to be a provision within that statute to allow officers to react to that. Because that does nothing but incite those around that vicinity and it furthers and escalates the riotous behavior.”
Under the bill, a riot would be defined as “a public disturbance involving an assemblage of five (5) or more persons which by tumultuous and violent conduct creates grave danger of damage or injury to property or persons or substantially obstructs law enforcement or other government function,” according to WLKY.
Critics have argued that definition is far too broad.
The original version of the bill contained language seeking to make it a crime to camp on state property that isn’t established as a campground, which critics claimed criminalized homelessness, the Courier Journal reported.
The provision has since been omitted.
Lawmakers also did away with provisions aimed at barring those convicted of riot-related crimes from receiving public assistance, as well as requirements pertaining to the enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences, the Courier Journal reported.
Senator David Yates (D-Louisville) said the proposed legislation “makes my stomach turn,” according to the paper.
“I think we go so far in this … it’s dangerous,” Yates said. “And I think the consequences are going to be worse for my city, which I represent, as far as that relationship that we’re working to build.”
Corey Shapiro, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Kentucky, denounced the bill, arguing that “the idea that the legislature would be criminalizing speech in such a way is offensive.”
“Verbally challenging police action — even if by insult or offensive language — is a cornerstone of our democracy,” Shapiro told the Courier Journal. “And the First Amendment protects people’s ability to express themselves, even if it’s using offensive words to the police.”
He alleged that lawmakers are just “trying to use whatever tactics they can to chill speech.”
ACLU of Kentucky spokesperson Kia Nishida said the measure “threatens free speech” and “criminalizes homelessness,” WLKY reported.
“It’s written specifically to intimidate protesters,” Nishida declared.
The legislation will now proceed to the full Senate and could potentially be passed as early as March 22, the Courier Journal reported.