OKLAHOMA CITY -- A bill approved by the Republican-led Oklahoma Legislature this year that seeks to crack down on protesters is unconstitutional and would chill the ability of groups to mobilize people to advocate for racial justice, a civil rights group argues in a federal lawsuit filed Monday.
The Oklahoma chapter of the NAACP filed the lawsuit in federal court in Oklahoma City, along with the national NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, and the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center.
The lawsuit argues the law, which takes effect Nov. 1, was written to discourage peaceful demonstrations and violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantee the right of the public to peacefully assemble and give citizens equal protection under the law.
The new law increases the penalties for blocking roadways, grants motorists civil and criminal immunity if they kill or injure someone while fleeing from a riot and authorizes hefty fines for national organizations that coordinate with those found guilty of committing crimes under the state's rioting statutes.
“Last year, the country watched a video of a man being brutally murdered by law enforcement," Anthony Douglas, president of Oklahoma State NAACP, said in a statement, referring to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. “Rather than trying to prevent such future injustices in this state, Oklahoma dedicated its efforts to silencing those who fight against injustice.”
Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for Oklahoma Attorney John O'Connor, a defendant in the lawsuit, said the attorney general's office plans to “vigorously defend" the new law.
State Rep. Kevin West, a Moore Republican who authored the bill, said the bill targets rioters, not those who peacefully assemble.
“House Bill 1674 protects law abiding citizens who find themselves caught in the midst of dangerous and illegal actions at no fault of their own," he said in an email to The Associated Press. “This law maintains the constitutional right to peaceably assemble while also reinforcing our citizen’s rights to be secure in their life, liberty and property.”
Supporters of the bill say it was prompted mostly by an incident in Tulsa last summer in which a pickup truck drove through a crowd gathered on a Tulsa interstate while protesting George Floyd's death. Several people were injured, including one who was paralyzed from the waist down after falling from an overpass, but the driver, whose family was in the truck, was not charged.
The measure is one of a series of GOP-backed proposals that would increase criminal penalties for activities associated with protests last year over racial injustice and police brutality.
A group of Oklahoma activists launched a petition drive seeking to overturn the new law, but last week fell short of the required number of signatures needed to qualify the veto referendum for a public vote.