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Under the Gold Dome: Bills That Could Impact Georgians’ Free Speech Rights

Since the protests that broke out in Atlanta and elsewhere after police killed George Floyd in 2020, the state of Georgia has decided that the legislative priority is ensuring that people understand that they just won’t be tolerated again.

In a wave of legislative activity, Georgia lawmakers this session are introducing a series of bills aimed at redefining the boundaries of free speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia says they’re alarmed at a batch of new bills, especially ones that seem aimed at criminalizing recent protest movements, including Atlanta’s “Stop Cop City” movement.

“Basically, since the popular movements of 2020, the state of Georgia has decided that the legislative priority is ensuring that people understand that they just won’t be tolerated again in this state,” said the Georgia ACLU’s policy counsel, Benjamin Lynde. He was referring to the protests that broke out in Atlanta and elsewhere after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

“I don’t have to read the tea leaves to say that, because [Republican lawmakers] have been pretty candid about it,” Lynde added.

Here’s a look at bills under consideration this session that are on the radar of free-speech advocates.

RICO charges for handing out flyers?

Could handing out political fliers be enough to prosecute someone under Georgia’s RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) law? That’s what’s in Senate Bill 359, sponsored by Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell).  The “Protecting Georgians Act” aims to expand the state RICO statute by adding various  misdemeanors to be considered as racketeering activity. 

The additional misdemeanors include littering, distributing posters, signs, and leaflets in restricted areas, disrupting a funeral or memorial service, loitering, and “prowling,” which is defined as the “act of lurking around an area with the intent to commit a criminal act.” Misdemeanor-level terroristic threats, disorderly conduct, and harrassing communication would also be added to the list of activities eligible for a RICO prosecution.

Prosecutors use the wide-ranging RICO law to make the case that a variety of seemingly disparate actions are actually part of a criminal enterprise–and RICO convictions carry higher penalties. Anyone convicted of a misdemeanor RICO charge in Georgia faces six to twelve months in jail, plus a fine of up to $5,000. 

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A felony RICO conviction currently means two or more years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000. SB 359 would increase the fine for a felony RICO conviction by making $5,000 the minimum fine. It also adds targeting a person or property because of political affiliation as a factor for enhanced penalties.

Albers described the bill as “fairly simple in its desire to make sure that people committing these heinous acts are held accountable for their crimes.”

But Lynde says it opens up prosecution for Georgians who simply put a political yard sign in the wrong place or pass out a leaflet. “In terms of the chilling effect, I can’t think of anything that’s more silly. If you do political advocacy but do it slightly wrong, you’re subject to not only a crime but a crime that carries years in prison.”

The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last month–but  after then members of both parties expressed reservations during the Senate floor debate, so it was sent back to the Judiciary Committee. “I don’t think [distributing fliers] is a RICO enterprise,” said Sen. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) during the debate. 

Expanding cash bail charges and restricting bail fund programs

It’s now up to Gov. Brian Kemp to decide the fate of Senate Bill 63, which sailed through both the state Senate and House over the last week. The bill adds 30 new misdemeanor charges such as trespassing, unlawful gathering, and failing to appear in court for a traffic ticket–to those requiring a cash bond for release from jail after an arrest.

The bill awaiting the governor’s signature also restricts individuals and organizations’ ability to pay cash bail to release others from jail.  It prohibits any individual or group from paying more than three cash bonds for other people each year. Currently there is no limit. 

Proponents argue that requiring people who’ve been arrested to pay a cash bond to get out of jail will deter repeat offenses and incentivize them to appear in court.

Critics such as Sen. Josh McLaurin (D-North Fulton) raised concerns during the Senate floor debate before the vote and suggested that the bill is a direct response to the protest movement against the controversial Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, dubbed Cop City. “It’s very thinly veiled targeting of the type of speech that the majority [party] doesn’t like,” McLaurin said.

“We’re really worried about what that’s going to do to the criminal legal system in Georgia. You’re going to have hundreds and thousands of individuals who are trapped in Georgia’s jails and can’t bond out,” Lynde said. ”The state doesn’t have a recourse to let them out because of this new law.”

Criminalizing antisemitism 

Last week, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed House Bill 30, which adds antisemitism to the state’s hate speech law for crimes committed against Jewish people or places. The law uses the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which the IHRA notes is legally non-binding.  

The new Georgia law makes the IHRA definition the basis for determining whether or not a targeted offense or discriminatory act  is antisemitic and should be enhanced to a hate crime. Under the enhancement, people face an additional 6 to 12 months in prison and a fine of up to $5,000 for a misdemeanor classified as an antisemitic hate crime. They face at least two additional years in prison for a felony act.

Kemp said it’s essential to support Jewish Georgians, despite concerns that the new law will chill the speech of people opposing the actions of the state of Israel. The bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Esther Panitch (D-Sandy Springs), the only Jewish member of the state legislature. “For anybody that didn’t think that anti-Zionism could cross into antisemitism, the rest of the world could see that it had,” she said. 

Opponents of the bill–a coalition that includes Jewish Voice for Peace and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), issued a statement that the new law “falsely equates critiques of Israel and Zionism with discrimination against Jewish people.”

A trio of bills targeting librarians and library books

A group of Senate Republicans are targeting educators, specifically librarians, in two bills. 

Twenty-two GOP senators are supporting Senate Bill 390, which both loosens restrictions on librarian certification and cuts funding to programs with ties to the American Library Association. Currently, the American Library Association is the only group that can accredit librarians in Georgia. So far the bill, filed Jan. 24, hasn’t progressed further in the Senate.

Relatedly, Senate Bill 154 eliminates the existing protection for K-12 educators from criminal charges related to distributing “harmful materials to minors.” That bill hasn’t made any headway so far in the current session. It was filed last year after Georgia’s so-called book-banning law passed in the 2022 legislative session. 

Deciding what would be on the “harmful materials” list is the aim of Senate Bill 394, The READER Act (Restricting Explicit and Adult-designated Educational Resources), which was filed Jan. 24. The bill, sponsored by 21 Republicans, would require the  Georgia Board of Education to establish a rating system for school materials and library books that would be updated annually.  

SB 394 defines “harmful to minors”  as sexual content appealing to the “prurient, shameful, or morbid interest of minors,” which lacks “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.” That is also the federal definition of obscenity, dating back to a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case