There are two bills moving through the Kentucky General Assembly causing great concern for civil liberties in Kentucky.
Rather than address the systemic issues plaguing our communities, lawmakers are pushing two bills that would weaponize the criminal legal system to silence a population crying out for justice. Both House Bill 479 and Senate Bill 211 would be used to threaten protesters with excessive prosecution, deterring them from exercising their right to free speech. SB211 has already passed out of committee.
House Bill 479 gives the Attorney General power to intervene in local prosecution of people charged with various protest-related crimes. This bill specifically expands the Attorney General’s powers for many of the same offenses protesters have been charged with throughout the commonwealth. This targeted expansion of the Attorney General’s powers shows HB 479 is clearly designed to intimidate peaceful protesters and stifle dissent.
HB 479 is unnecessary. Statutes already exist to allow local prosecutors to request the Attorney General’s involvement. This bill criminalizes free speech and specifically targets prosecutors who make decisions the Attorney General does not agree with. With passage of HB 479, the Attorney General would be able to intervene in prosecution for low-level offenses such as failure to disperse and disrupting a meeting, among others. Why would an office as powerful as the Attorney General’s be involved in such offenses? The only thing that makes these offenses stand out in comparison to others is that they are often used in charges against peaceful protesters.
Senate Bill 211 is perhaps an even more egregious piece of legislation. It would enhance penalties for protest-related charges to intimidate Kentuckians exercising constitutionally-protected speech. One provision would make it illegal to camp in public space, a direct response to the peaceful protesters occupying Injustice Square in Louisville. Another would make it illegal to insult a police officer – literally criminalizing speech. SB 211 is a direct response to the Breonna Taylor protests that took place in Louisville last summer; the bill’s sponsor admitted as much during a committee discussion.
SB211 is a massive overreach and works in direct opposition to efforts to heal our communities. Throughout the commonwealth and around the nation, individuals protested racial injustice last summer. The pain and frustration were particularly palpable in Louisville as people came together to demand justice for Breonna Taylor after she was killed over a year ago. During the protests, white people marched beside their Black neighbors and used their first amendment rights to demand a better Kentucky. Despite many of the protesters being white, an outsized number of those who were charged with crimes are Black. There are already dramatic racial disparities infecting our justice system. Bills such as HB 479 and SB211 undoubtedly result in needlessly bringing more people – specifically more Black people – into the justice system.
Any attempt to criminalize or erode constitutionally-protected speech should be rejected. Freedom of expression is the bedrock of our democracy. We should not be creating more mandatory minimums, increasing fines or fees, or creating any other statutes that would have a long-term negative impact on Kentuckians and overburden our already beleaguered court system.
The General Assembly has an opportunity this session to make strides toward racial equity in Kentucky. We have had open dialogue with legislators about just such advancements, and it is clear there is an appetite for change. We have seen people from different political backgrounds, geographical locations, genders, and races talk about policing and various changes of the criminal legal system to build a stronger commonwealth. These bills are the exact opposite of the examples of healing and reconciliation we have witnessed. These bills will expand the criminal legal system, sow distrust and intimidation among people who are exercising their first amendment rights and increase racial inequities in our justice system.
We urge the general assembly to work to move forward, not backward.