The Alabama House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday held a public hearing on a bill that would levy new crimes and penalties for rioting, but one that opponents say would stifle free speech and could lead to the arrest of peaceful protestors.
The sponsor of the bill and retired Birmingham assistant police chief, state Rep. Allen, Treadaway, R-Morris, said the legislation was born after he witnessed protests and riots in Birmingham during the summer of 2020 following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
“I have worked on both sides of the aisle to painstakingly make sure that we do not suppress in any way anybody’s First Amendment rights,” Treadaway said of his bill.
Treadaway explained that those Birmingham protests were hijacked by outsiders who intended to set fires and riot, and his bill is needed to strengthen penalties in an attempt to prevent such actions in the future.
Treadaway filed a similar bill in the House during the 2021regular legislative session, which drew criticism from Democrats in both the House and Senate, but failed to pass before the session ended.
Committee Chair Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, said due to time constraints the public hearing would be limited and questions from committee members to Treadaway could be asked and answered at a committee meeting next week.
The bill would impose a minimum 30-day jail sentence without parole for anyone charged with rioting and would allow for civil penalties connected to damages and injuries caused during a riot.
The bill also changes the definition of the crime of inciting a riot from “Command, solicit, incite, or urge someone to engage in tumultuous group conduct” to “commands, solicits, incites, funds, urges, or otherwise aids and abets another person to engage in a riot or aggravated riot.”
House Bill 2 would also require a 24-hour holding period for protestors before allowing them to post bail or receive a court hearing.
David Gespass, a Birmingham attorney speaking on behalf of the Alabama chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, told the committee that the bill is unnecessary and would stifle free speech.
“What this bill does is subject every protester to the punishment for the acts of individuals – acts which would be illegal and prosecutable without it,” Gespass said.
Gespass said the bill would stifle protest by threatening those who participate with mandatory jail time for the actions of individuals who may or may not be among the actual protesters.
“Nor is it lost on us that this bill is in response to protests against racist and violent police actions and Confederate symbols,” Gespass said.
Gespass explain the bill would intimidate potential protestors and prevent them from exercising their Constitutional right to protest.
“In particular, it seeks to limit protests like those we’ve seen in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, black and brown people protesting systemic racism and demanding protection and respect for the dignity and humanity,” Gespass said.
Dexter Strong, a youth pastor from Huntsville, said during the public hearing that he attended the Black Lives Matter protests in Huntsville in the summer of 2020.
“I stood between thousands of protesters and law enforcement on the steps of the Madison County Courthouse and pleaded with law enforcement to let them have their say, Strong said.
“I’m an armchair student of history and I cannot recall one time in this state’s history where Black folks got together in mass to go out and protest something and we were wrong,” Strong said. “But I’ve seen time and time and time again how lawmakers who claimed to be anti-violence exert dominance through public policy. Throw those rocks and hide their hands.”
The committee took no action on the bill Wednesday, and are to revisit the legislation at next week’s Wednesday meeting.
The ACLU of Alabama in a statement Wednesday said the bill would stifle free speech.
“If passed, this bill would implement a broad and vague definition of a riot and impose harsh criminal penalties on people who peacefully participate in legal protests. The bill would incentivize counties and municipalities to restrict free speech, allow for warrantless arrests, and impose 24 hour holding periods before those arrested are eligible to post bail,” the statement reads.