by Gloria Tatum
(APN) ATLANTA — SB 469, an anti-union and anti-protest bill, would turn nonviolent civil disobedience into a felony punishable by imprisonment for one year and a fine of ten thousand dollars for organizations and one thousand dollars for individuals. It also has provisions intended to weaken unions.
The bill was introduced by State Reps. Don Balfour (R-Snellville), Bill Hamrick (R-Carrollton), Bill Cowsert (R-Athens), and Ross Tolleson (R-Perry). All four Senators are members of an organization called the American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC). ALEC bring corporations and lawmakers together to draft template legislation that is introduced in other states to change policy. ALEC claims to be nonpartisan but is funded by several right-wing thing tanks.
“In a state which lays credible claim to being the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement, State Senators Don Balfour, Ross Tolleson, Bill Hamrick, and Bill Cowsert have just demonstrated palpable disrespect for Georgia’s rich history of protest and activism. They are the sponsors of Senate Bill 469 which, had it been law in 1960, would have made Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, John Lewis, Joe Beasley, Minnie Ruffin, and many other luminaries of the Civil Rights Movement into felons,” Sara Amis of Occupy Atlanta, wrote in a blog post.
“The way they are handling these extreme bills like SB 469 prohibiting protest which they know is unconstitutional, but they want to send a message and try to throw everyone off track,” Larry Pellegrini of the Georgia Rural Urban Summit, told Atlanta Progressive News.
“In addition, they have from the beginning of the Session been looking like they want to find Constitutional challenges and actually pass bills that they know are unconstitutional but to use them as a way to overturn federal law,” Pellegrini said.
Many people believe the legislation, which was introduced on February 21, 2012, is a reaction to the February 13 sit-in at AT&T’s midtown headquarters, where twelve people were arrested for criminal trespass, which is a misdemeanor. Since the arrests, Occupy Atlanta and various unions have maintained about twenty tents in front of AT&T.
The bill was assigned to the Insurance and Labor committee which held a hearing on February 28. The hearing room was filled to capacity with overflow in the hall. Ninety percent of the attendees were union members and the rest from different organizations.
“SB 469, I believe, would have the effect of trying to intimidate working families, especial those involved in labor protest activities such as picketing and sit-ins. I think this is part of a much broader effort to weaken our middle class. It is part of a model piece of legislation that comes from ALEC. SB 469 could grant preemptive injunctions preventing working families from protesting against unfair labor practices. Georgians have the right to peacefully demonstrate on public property about unfair corporate practices like when corporations use their profits to send local jobs overseas,” Charlie Flemming, President of Georgia AFL-CIO told the committee.
“Governor Deal wants to reduce the number of folks incarcerated around nonviolent crimes and drugs, but on the other hand we are saying we want to lock people up and make them felons if they protest or picket,” Flemming said.
Elizabeth Appleby is an attorney in Georgia who has practiced law for 34 years with a large part of her practice in constitutional law and represents the AFL-CIO in Georgia with 170,000 members in unions throughout Georgia. They oppose SB 469 in its entirety.
“My evaluation of SB 469 is that it interferes with the constitutional right of free speech, the First Amendment, and right to peacefully assemble. It seems to impermissibly place the free speech rights of some individuals in the hands of other private citizens and corporations, giving them a sword with an over-broad criminal statute, elevated fines and punishment, and injunctive tools unique to this bill that will have the effect unconstitutionally of stifling people’s right to speak out,” Appleby testified.
“It violates the first amendment and the right to protest. It actually makes it illegal for groups or organizations to protest it stifles freedom of speech and expression. This bill is just un-American,” Calvine Rollins, President of the Georgia Association of Educator, said.
“People I know voted for you folks because they thought you were for less government, but this is big government run amok for a few. I will be in every church I can in south Rockdale County telling them what somebody is trying to do to Christians. Christians in here [on the committee] not letting us exercise what we all hear about on right-wing radio every day, let’s go back to the Constitution,” Chuck Styles, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said.
“If this bill had been in effect one hundred years ago, the only people who would be free today would be White adult males. Blacks and women would not have the right to vote; children would still be working themselves to death; we would not have the forty hour work week, the eight hour work day, and other benefits. Many of the organizations I work with demonstrate and picket, and if this bill had been in operations four or five years ago, I would already be in prison for life,” Minnie Ruffin said.
Many other people spoke in opposition to the bill and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce spoke in support of the bill.
The entire room chanted “Kill the bill.”
The Committee amended the bill by striking felony on page 129 through imprisonment on age 131 and inserting high and aggravated misdemeanor. State Sen. Chip Rogers missed all the testimony but returned to vote against the bill. The bill passed as amended.
Two occupy folks were detained and one arrested as they “mike checked” the room as people were leaving.
“They have not fixed the bill, it is still very flawed and a violation of Georgia law,” Debbie Seagraves, Executive Director of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia, told APN.
“The bill creates a conflict in Georgia criminal code. You can be charged now with criminal trespass or you can be charged with conspiracy to criminal trespass but you can’t be charged with both. In the current Georgia criminal code, if you are charged with conspiracy to commit criminal trespass or any other misdemeanor you can’t be charged with more than the sentence of the crime. Conspiracy to commit a crime can not be charged at a higher rate than the actual commission of the crime. SB 469 will allow you to be charged with both and it sets a higher penalty than the current law does. It is adding higher punishment for exercising first amendment rights,” Seagraves said.
“It requires the Court to grant an injunction against someone for demonstrating, picketing, or protesting, and it does not require the compliant to show harm. This is a major change in law,” Seagraves said.
“While this bill appears to be an anti-labor bill, the restrictions, the enhanced penalties, and infringement of First Amendment rights will apply to everyone in Georgia. This can lend anyone open to enhanced penalties, large fines, and potentially imprisonment for exercising their First Amendment rights,” Seagraves said.
Gloria Tatum is a reporter for Atlanta Progressive News, which has served for five years as Atlanta’s trusted on-line source of progressive news and information.