Geneva: Nineteen US states have introduced bills that would curb freedom of expression and the right to protest since Donald Trump’s election as president, an “alarming and undemocratic” trend, UN human rights investigators said on Thursday.
Concerns for free speech in the US have risen in part because of the Republican Trump’s antagonistic relations with prominent US media, which he has branded “the enemy of the American people” as it has reported on policy missteps and dysfunction in his administration.
The push for stricter laws on expression has come as Trump’s liberal foes have pursued public protest against his policies on issues ranging from immigration to abortion and climate change.
Maina Kiai and David Kaye, independent UN experts on freedom of peaceful assembly and expression respectively, said in a statement that the state bills were incompatible with international human rights law.
“The trend also threatens to jeopardise one of the US’s constitutional pillars – free speech,” they said in a statement, calling for action to reverse such legislation.
“From the Black Lives Matter movement, to the environmental and Native American movements in opposition to the Dakota Access oil pipeline, and the Women’s Marches, individuals and organisations across (American) society have mobilised in peaceful protests,” Kiai and Kaye said.
They said it was their fundamental right to do so, but that bills in Republican-governed states like Indiana, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Missouri sought to stop them exercising that right.
The civil rights movement known as Black Lives Matter has been fuelled by a series of shootings of unarmed black men by white US police officers that triggered national protests.
The UN experts’ statement came a day after they criticised Russia’s treatment of peaceful protesters who took to the streets following allegations of corruption against Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
The US state department had also criticised Russia’s handling of those protests, calling them an affront to democratic values.
Supporters of the US state legislative action say it sums up the frustration some people feel about protests that get in the way of daily lives, and reflects a wish to maintain public safety. Free speech advocates say the bills are worrying, seeing them as opening the way to criminalising peaceful protests.
The UN experts said several bills proposed in Colorado, North Dakota and Oklahoma targeted opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota and would have “a chilling effect on environmental protesters”.
Last month dozens of armed US law enforcement officers swept through a protest camp near the site of the pipeline, clearing the gathering that for months served as a base of opposition to the multi-billion-dollar project.
In Missouri a bill proposed a seven-year prison term for “unlawful obstruction of traffic”, while the Minnesota bill would criminalise peaceful protesters for participating in demonstrations that subsequently turned violent.
The UN experts said there was no such thing as a violent protest, only violent protesters. “One person’s decision to resort to violence does not strip other protesters of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly,” Kaye and Kiai said.