Press Statement: ACLU of Georgia Opposes HB 838 Which Adds Law Enforcement as a Protected Class
Additions are unnecessary as law enforcement officers already have enhanced protections under Georgia code
ATLANTA – The ACLU of Georgia opposes HB 838, the addition of law enforcement as a protected class, a dangerous step to chill every Georgian’s First Amendment freedom of speech and the right to protest to redress grievances – guarantees in the U.S. Constitution.
This morning, the Senate voted for HB 838, which has now gone to the House of Representatives. Last night under the cover of darkness, the Senate Rules Committee switched the dangerous language that had been in HB 426 and snuck it into House Bill 838 to affirm the state government’s power for first responders to use violence against its own citizens with impunity. The full Senate voted on it this morning, and the bill passed.
“This legislative action in this moment pours salt in the wounds of the Georgians of all races and backgrounds who are participating daily in protests calling for the reform of policing and expressing their support for black lives,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia. “Additionally, this provision undermines the officers who strive to obey their oath of office and uphold high standards in their interactions with the public. We oppose HB 838 in its current form and will explore all options to protect the First Amendment rights of Georgians.”
In the wake of the death of Rayshard Brooks at the hands of a police officer and the failure of police to arrest the killers of Ahmaud Arbery, the Georgia Senate Rules Committee chose to create the crime of “bias motivated intimidation” against law enforcement officers. This is Georgia’s version of “contempt of cop,” the police practice of punishing people who say offensive things to the officers who arrest them.
In Pennsylvania, a black man “called the police ‘Nazis,’ ‘skinheads’ and ‘Gestapo,’ and the state charged him with a hate crime.” Amidst a rising tide of actual hate crimes, creating a false category is morally outrageous and has been unconstitutional for nearly a half century.
In 1974, in Lewis v. New Orleans, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a city ordinance that made it a crime “for any person wantonly to curse or revile or to use obscene or opprobrious language toward or with reference to” a city officer. The court said, “A properly trained police officer may reasonably be expected to exercise a higher degree of restraint” than the average citizen when insulted. Thirteen years later, the court, citing Lewis, struck down a Houston ordinance that made it a crime to “oppose . . . or interrupt any policeman” in the performance of his duties.
In 2017, the Georgia General Assembly passed and the Governor signed into law Senate Bill 160, which included heavier penalties for offenses committed against “public safety officers” and other listed law enforcement professions. The attached Table of Additional Protections for Law Enforcement demonstrates that additional protections are unnecessary as the Georgia code provides sufficient protections for law enforcement, including enhanced penalties for assault against a police officer.
Media contact: Ana Maria Rosato, firstname.lastname@example.org