The state NAACP has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a law the rights group calls an “anti-protest” law.”
State House Bill 1674 was passed this year by the Republican-dominated State Legislature and signed into law by the governor.
The law says a motorist could be immune from civil or criminal liability for injuring or killing a person while “fleeing” a riot, so long as the driver feared for his safety and exercised “due care” at the time of the injury.
The lawsuit seeks to stop the enforcement of a law that goes into affect on Nov. 1 because that is designed to limit protests and will have a chilling effect on free speech.
The state NAACP has joined the Georgetown Law Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection as plaintiffs in the suit.
They contend the law classifies as a misdemeanor the unlawful obstruction of a road or highway, and enacts fines for organizations “found to be a conspirator” with someone who violates any one of a number of state laws pertaining to riots and unlawful assemblies.
The groups say the law violates the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
The amendments grant the right to peacefully assemble and to receive equal protection under the law.
The lawsuit alleges the vagueness of State HB 1674 could result in the NAACP being charged millions of dollars in fines should anyone break state law at demonstrations organized by the group.
The law says Oklahomans who unlawfully obstruct a road or highway could be subject to fines of up to $5,000 and conspirators could face fines up to $50,000.
The suit argues the law is not clear about whether conspirators could face just one $50,000 fine or maximum penalties for multiple violations.
Punishments outlined in the law appear to be attempts to “scare civil rights organizations” into not sponsoring demonstrations or protests, said Anthony Ashton, litigation director for the state group.
He said the law is an attempt to bankrupt rights groups with the law’s “excessive fines.”
The law doesn’t clearly define a “conspirator” or how much time the blocking of a road or highway constitutes a violation of state law, the lawsuit said.
“Five minutes, five seconds or some other temporal interval might all trigger a violation,” according to the lawsuit.
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater are named in the lawsuit because they would be tasked with enforcing the law when it takes effect Nov. 1, said Mary McCord, executive director of the Georgetown Law Institute.
State Rep. Kevin West (Rep., Moore), said the legislation was not intended to stop free speech, but to punish rioters and protect law-abiding citizens who may get trapped in an unlawful assembly.