Arkansas General Assembly – Senate Bill 550 – 2017

Little Rock, AR

“An Act to Protect Access to Places of Employment, Rights of Way, Private Real Property, and Public Infrastructure; and For Other Purposes” passed the Arkansas State Senate and House of Representatives, but was vetoed by the governor. The bill would have increased penalties for individuals convicted of “mass picketing,” threatening protesters with up to a year in prison.

Key Players

State Senator Trent Garner, a Republican, sponsored Senate Bill 550. He represents a district in Southern Arkansas.

Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, vetoed Senate Bill 550, citing the need to protect freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Further Details

Senate Bill 550 would have elevated “mass picketing” to a Class A misdemeanor in Arkansas, imposing increased penalties on individuals convicted of the crime. The bill established a broad framework for defining mass picketing, including protests “at or near a business, school or private facility.” If signed into law, the bill would have expanded law enforcement’s authority to shut down protests and penalize their participants. Specifically, it would “allow penalties of a year in jail for people” who protest on public roads or hinder employees from entering their place of work, according to the Arkansas Times. Finally, this legislation would have established a civil liability for protesters, according to The Southwest Times.

Senate Bill 550, sponsored by State Senator Trent Garner, drew criticism from the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which considered it to be part of an “alarming trend to curb freedom of assembly in the US.” Garner said his legislation was a “response to several recent protests he believed interfered with other people’s rights, including one that blocked a street in Fayetteville and one in which Black Lives Matter protesters blocked Interstate 40 in Memphis,” reports The Southwest Times.

The legislation passed the Arkansas House of Representatives on a vote of 58-21, and the State Senate by a margin of 18-8. Governor Hutchinson vetoed the legislation, citing concerns about the bill’s vague language and detrimental consequences for civil liberties in Arkansas. “On its face, SB 550 attempts to ensure public safety. Public safety is, first and foremost, a priority of government… That being said, a balanced view is always required in approaching public policy. Benjamin Franklin’s famous remark, ‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,’ comes to mind with regard to this legislation,” the governor said in his veto message. The Arkansas Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union praised the governor’s decision, condemning the bill’s “heavy-handed attempt to restrict the freedom of assembly and criminalize constitutionally-protected speech.”

Outcome

Governor Vetoed Bill

Governor Hutchinson vetoed the legislation, invoking a need to protect First Amendment freedoms. Senator Garner accepted the Governor’s veto and said he would not seek to override it, reports Arkansas Online.

External References:

SB 550

One to veto: An anti-1st Amendment bill from Trent Garner, The Arkansas Times

UN rights experts urge lawmakers to stop “alarming” trend to curb freedom of assembly in the US, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner

Senate passes bill against ‘mass picketing,’ The Arkansas Times

Statement on Gov. Hutchinson’s Veto of Anti-Protest Bill SB 550, ACLU of Arkansas

Governor Hutchinson’s Veto Message

Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18

August 22, 2017