Some assembly required: UN warns of state efforts to limit protest

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photo Eze Amos photo Eze Amos

How did Richard Stuart, trustee of the Westmoreland County Volunteer Fire Department since 1999, father of three, and 2014 Virginia chapter winner of the American Academy of Pediatrics Child Advocate Award earn the attention of two United Nations Special Rapporteurs concerned with the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly? As Virginia state senator for the 28th District, the Republican introduced a bill during the 2017 legislative session that was “incompatible with human rights laws and would unduly restrict the possibility for individuals to freely exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression, and peaceful assembly.”

Yes, Virginia, the august body of the UN itself is worried about your right to assemble —and the rights of citizens in 17 additional states where restrictions on free speech or assembly were either proposed or passed. Stuart’s bill, which was defeated 14-26 with not a single Democrat supporting it, in the words of last spring’s UN report would have “dramatically increased penalties for protesters engaged in assemblies considered ‘unlawful.’”

Specifically, failure to disperse after an assembly is declared unlawful would have moved up to a Class 1 misdemeanor from Class 3 under Stuart’s bill. About SB1055 the UN rapporteurs concluded, “any law that would chill protesting also threatens the right to freedom of expression.”

That means the two protesters arrested after Charlottesville’s July 8 KKK rally and the August 12 Unite the Right convergence would be facing up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500 rather than the current maximum $500 fine with no jail time.

Addressed to the United States’ permanent mission to the UN, the report asks what measures the federal government intends to ensure state legislation accords with international standards of free expression and assembly. If that wasn’t a rhetorical question six months ago when the report was filed, it surely is now.

Ask Jemele Hill or Colin Kaepernick about the Trump administration’s position on free expression. Or, closer to home, recall the lies uttered by the president himself to discredit the August 12 counterprotesters. What’s the Department of Justice going to do to uphold freedom of expression and assembly at the state level, UN? I’ll bet very little.

Which means you’ve got to fend for yourself, Old Dominion. Don’t wait for Jeff Sessions to stand up for your rights and don’t expect a UN intervention. Richmond’s new legislative session begins on January 10, 2018, with committee meetings scheduled between now and then. Pay attention to what’s being drafted and passed through those committees using the General Assembly website. Respond, resist, and get a permit before you protest.

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Speaking of the mirthless U.S. attorney general, the Code Pink activist whose conviction for laughing during Sessions’ confirmation hearing in January was overturned, will be back in court next month.

Desiree Fairooz, of Loudoun County, refused a plea deal and is scheduled for retrial on November 13, according to her Twitter feed. (“I still cannot believe the government refuses to drop this,” she tweeted. “Vindictive!”)

It’s quaint, if nothing else, to think of the UN raising the question of how free speech and free assembly will be protected on the federal level, while the government goes out of its way to punish a 61-year-old activist for chortling. Quaint, maybe even ironic, but it’s definitely not a laughing matter.

 

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