Civil rights organizations have filed a lawsuit alleging that a controversial anti-protest law slated to take effect in a month is not only unconstitutional, but was crafted to discourage peaceful protests.
The NAACP, its Oklahoma chapter, the Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, and local attorney Melvin Hall filed the lawsuit on Monday, challenging House Bill 1674, which Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law on April 22 and is set to take effect on Nov. 1.
The GOP-bill makes it illegal to hinder traffic, provides immunity to drivers who inadvertently kill or hurt protestors while fleeing a disturbance, and imposes fines on groups proven to be linked with rioters.
The law, according to the civil rights organizations, was enacted in response to nationwide protests against racial inequality in the aftermath of the police-involved killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day last year in Minneapolis, and “chills Oklahoma NAACP’s efforts to mobilize Black people and their allies to advocate for racial justice.”
“Last year, the country watched a video of a man being brutally murdered by law enforcement. Rather than trying to prevent such future injustices in this state, Oklahoma dedicated its efforts to silencing those who fight against injustice,” Oklahoma State NAACP President Anthony Douglas said in a statement. “The First and 14th Amendments demand that HB 1674 be struck down.”
The complaint claims that the Act is unconstitutional and creates a “existential threat” to the NAACP and other racial justice organizations. It was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma.
They accuse the state of expanding on its existing criminal-conspiracy statute by utilizing “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad phrases” to punish racial justice organizations with “devastating fines” for their ties to persons who commit illegal activities, according to the court brief.
“Oklahoma’s anti-protest law seeks to stop organizations like the NAACP from engaging in rallies, marches and peaceful demonstrations — actions that have always been at the heart of the civil rights movement’s challenges to unlawful acts and unjust conditions,” NAACP Interim General Counsel Janette Wallace said.
Concerning the law’s designation of obstructing traffic as a criminal offense, the lawsuit says it uses vague and overbroad terms to criminalize First Amendment protected activities.
“The provision provides no definition of the terms ‘approach’ or ‘unreasonably inconvenient,'” the court document said. “And, although the provision defines ‘obstruct’ in part to mean ‘to render impassable’ that definition provides no measure of time during which the street must actually be impassable before someone violates the provision. Five minutes, five seconds or some other temporal interval might all trigger a violation.”
Oklahoma state Rep. Kevin West, one of the bill’s authors, told KFOR in a statement that the bill is about protecting citizens from violence.
“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. “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.”
In a statement to the news organization, the office of Attorney General John O’Connor, who is named as a defendant in the complaint, said they will “examine the lawsuit and prepare to firmly defend the legality of this statute.”