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Protest organizers could face criminal charges under proposed Louisiana law


Protest organizers could face criminal charges under proposed Louisiana law

Apr 16, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Wesley Muller
Protest organizers could face criminal charges under proposed Louisiana law
The Louisiana Legislature is considering a bill that that would enact harsher criminal penalties for anyone who plans or coordinates a protest that impedes traffic such as demonstrators pictured here did on Poydras Street outside the Hale Boggs Federal Complex in New Orleans on Sept. 1, 2021, to demand congressional action on unemployment. (Photo credit: Step Up Louisiana)

Anyone who plans or coordinates a protest that disrupts traffic could face harsher punishment under a proposed law under consideration in Louisiana. 

House Bill 127, sponsored by Rep. Mike Bayham, R-Chalmette, passed the lower chamber in a 72-31 mostly party line vote. Rep. Joe Stagni, R-Kenner, joined with Democrats to oppose the measure. It will head next to the Senate for consideration. 

The bill would expand a state criminal statute that outlaws obstruction of a highway, road, railway, airport runway or navigable waterway.

Under current law, the crime is considered a misdemeanor punishable by a $250 fine, six months in prison or both. It applies to anyone who physically performs an act, such as protesting or placing an obstacle on a street, that makes it harder for cars or other vessels to pass.

Bayham’s bill increases the fine to $750 for the misdemeanor act of obstructing a road. It adds a new provision to specifically go after protest organizers by applying the statute to anyone who coordinates or plans a demonstration that blocks or slows down traffic. 

“We need to have a society that respects law and order,” Bayham said on the House floor. 

Under the original version of Bayham’s proposal, protest organizers would have faced felony charges with penalties of up to a $5,000 fine and a year in prison with hard labor.

Some lawmakers felt the harsher penalties for organizers were unfair.

“If I place something on a railroad track, it’s a misdemeanor. But if I plan it, it’s a felony?” asked Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond, who then introduced a floor amendment to remove the felony classification and make the crime a misdemeanor for planners and participants. 

The amendment passed without objection, but members of the Legislative Black Caucus still had problems with the proposal. 

The amendment did not address an issue Rep. Matthew Willard, D-New Orleans, raised at the start of the floor debate when he disagreed with Bayham over the meaning of the word “coordination.” Willard argued the bill would criminalize the mere thought of a protest on a roadway. 

Bayham said “coordination” means to actively communicate with or direct another person to carry out some action, but the bill doesn’t define the word nor explicitly require the involvement of more than one person. Willard said coordination can also be a solo act.

The language of the bill seeks to outlaw something that “could totally occur in somebody’s head,” Willard said, adding that the proposal could violate the First Amendment rights to free thought and assembly. 

Louisiana could outlaw protests near residences, despite First Amendment concerns

Bayham disagreed and suggested his bill would still allow people to lawfully assemble for a government-approved protest. He said it would also protect public safety. 

“If you have a permitted protest or march that blocks a roadway, the police and emergency services have advanced notice, so they can work around it… [But] if you have a sudden incident where you have obstruction, the police cannot plan around that, and that creates chaos and could potentially lead to loss of life,” Bayham said. 

Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, pointed out that most peaceful protesting is effective when it blocks traffic and forces others to stop and pay attention. She said many of the Civil Rights demonstrations of the 1950s and 1960s affected change specifically because they were spontaneous and done without the government’s permission.

“They blocked roadways to draw attention to whatever the injustices were that they were facing,” Marcelle said.

In response, Bayham drew a distinction between modern protests and those of the Civil Rights era, saying today’s demonstrations are done to “promote something that is not really human rights but a particular cause issue.”

Marcelle used that opening to bring up the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in which a large mob of supporters of former President Donald Trump made a violent attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election and exact revenge on certain members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence. 

Testing whether Bayham’s views on protesting would remain consistent in the face of partisan pressure, Marcelle asked him if he thought the Jan. 6 insurrectionists should be subject to the same kind of criminal prosecution proposed in his bill.

Bayham did not shy away from the question.

“Anyone who illegally entered the U.S. Capitol that day should have been charged,” Bayham said. “And I think some of the people who were arrested that day wish they would only have to pay $750.”

Marcelle said she appreciated his answer. 

Although Bayham’s bill pertains to state criminal law, holding protest organizers accountable for unlawful acts that others commit — even when the protest leader didn’t authorize the act — is currently at issue in an ongoing lawsuit. A Baton Rouge police officer is suing a Black Lives Matter activist who helped plan a protest after Alton Sterling was shot and killed by a white police officer outside a convenience store on July 5, 2016. The officer, whose identity has been redacted from court records, is suing the activist, DeRay Mckesson, saying he should be held liable for injuries he suffered when he was struck by an object thrown by an unidentified person in the crowd.

A similar argument is being made in the federal case against Trump in connection with the Capitol riot even though he did not enter the building. Prosecutors have not charged the former president with inciting the mob but allege that he attempted to obstruct an official proceeding, among other crimes.