On behalf of Americans for Prosperity West Virginia, I urge you to oppose HB 2916. This vote may be recorded in our 2023 session legislative scorecard.
The Right to Protest is a hallmark of America and constitutionally protected under the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. Millions have exercised this right in ways both small and large to shape the nation we know today. Rioting is not protesting. Violence and destruction of property are not free speech—and are already covered under criminal penalties in West Virginia code. In an attempt to protect against rioting and ensure public safety, this misguided legislation instead threatens free expression.
Public officials are duty bound to protect public safety while also honoring their oath of office to uphold constitutional rights and civil liberties. Well-crafted policy protects property, promotes the common interest in the reliability of governance, and safeguards the right to free expression. Some laws intended to address rioting are unnecessarily vague, leaving citizens worried that they may face criminal prosecution simply for exercising their right to free speech. Additionally, overly aggressive prosecutors may take advantage of this vagueness to push a personal agenda aimed at particular groups or individuals. Unfortunately, HB 2916 falls prey to several of the issues outlined above.
Creates new, draconian “terrorism” offenses that could too easily extend to constitutionally protected demonstrations and peaceful protesters. One of these new offenses—”terrorist violent mass action,” is defined to include “violent protests” and “riots” that “appear intended” to coerce or intimidate groups, governments, or societies. The bill states that “any person or group that participates” in such an action commits “terrorism.”
Does not define “violent protest.” It also does not require that a person individually commit any act of violence or property damage to be culpable. As such, someone who peacefully participates in a nonviolent protest where a few individuals have unfortunately decided to break the current laws of our state by committing property damage could conceivably face felony charges for engaging in a “terrorist violent mass action,” by virtue of simply being present.
Allows nonprofit groups involved in organizing or supporting such protests to be deemed “terrorist organizations.” Language like this can easily be twisted to target groups on either side of the aisle that work or protest on more contentious issues, such as those that rally on issues ranging from pro-life policies to criminal justice issues.
Allows for individuals and organizations not directly involved in such protests to face felony “terrorism” charges for providing protesters with “material support”—broadly defined by the bill as “any property, tangible or intangible, or service.”
Contains concerning language that could be used to allow people who hit protesters with their vehicle to escape liability.
Free speech transcends the political divide. When government erodes First Amendment rights–including the freedoms of speech and peaceful protest—it hurts people and causes across the political spectrum. We all have an interest in guaranteeing that West Virginians may exercise their constitutional rights to speak freely and to petition for redress of grievances as they see them. We also share an interest in public safety, which is already more than adequately accounted for in current criminal and civil law.
It is for these reasons I respectfully urge you to oppose this legislation that would weaken citizens’ First Amendment rights.