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Georgia Senate committee revives measure to limit protests

FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, file photo, New state Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, center, is flanked by Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, left, and Majority Whip Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, right, as he speaks to the media in Atlanta. A Senate committee on Thursday, March 18, 2021, revived a proposal pushed by Robertson to declare more protests illegal and enact harsher penalties for acts including blocking highways. (AP Photo/John Amis, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, file photo, New state Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, center, is flanked by Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, left, and Majority Whip Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, right, as he speaks to the media in Atlanta. A Senate committee on Thursday, March 18, 2021, revived a proposal pushed by Robertson to declare more protests illegal and enact harsher penalties for acts including blocking highways. (AP Photo/John Amis, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ATLANTA – A Georgia state Senate committee is reviving a proposal to require a permit for any protest statewide, and classify it as an illegal assembly if two or more people harass someone in a wide range of public places, among other restrictions.

The proposal also would make it a felony to harm any state structure during an illegal assembly, and make it a felony to block a street or highway after a police officer tells people to leave.

The Senate Public Safety Committee on Thursday voted 5-3 for the amended version of House Bill 289, which previously dealt with requiring a drug and alcohol education course for teens seeking a driver's license. Georgia lawmakers often remove old language and replace it with an unrelated proposal in the closing days of a session.

The committee also voted to approve House Bill 286, a Republican-based bill to block “defund the police” movements in cities and counties, saying local governments generally can't cut spending on their police departments by more than 5% a year.

The measures move on to the full Senate for more debate.

The new proposal Thursday mirrors Senate Bill 171, a measure that Republican Sen. Randy Robertson of Cataula introduced earlier. It died for the year in the Senate Judiciary Committee without a vote after members expressed concerns that it would infringe on constitutional rights of free speech and assembly. The fate of Robertson's new measure is unclear based on that earlier cool reception.

Robertson says the state needs to do more to stop violent protests, citing upheaval in Atlanta during last summer's Black Lives Matter movement, as well as the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol in January.

“This is based on the insurrection we’ve seen happen throughout our country this past year,” Robertson told the committee Thursday.

Robertson has said it’s constitutional for governments to regulate the time, place and manner of speech, and said he believes his bill just furthers such regulation.

Opponents have attacked the bill as an unconstitutional crackdown on civil liberties and a draconian response to protests last summer that were largely peaceful. Robertson disagrees.

“We’ve addressed the illegal conduct under unlawful assemblies,” Robertson said. “And I cannot point that out enough, that we are not trying to prevent anyone from having a peaceful assembly.”

The proposal would make it a misdemeanor for two or more people to “harass or intimidate any person within any public accommodation” a term that encompasses more than 60 locations including parks, colleges, restaurants, stadiums and auditoriums.

Anyone in a group of seven or more who damaged property or committed violence against another person would be guilty of a felony.

No one convicted of illegal assembly would ever be allowed to work for the state, any city, county, public college or university or any other government agency.

Anyone blocking any highway or street after being asked to leave by a police officer would be guilty of a felony publishable by one to five years in prison.

Anyone who injured a protester in an unlawful assembly could defend themselves against criminal liability by arguing they were fleeing to prevent injury to themselves or damage to their property. Opponents fear that would make it legally permissible to run down protesters in a car.

Every legal protest in Georgia would require a permit from a city or county, with an attorney and police chief or sheriff reviewing an application that included names and contact information of organizers and an emergency action plan that could include security and first aid information.

Cities and counties could be sued if they were “grossly negligent” by allowing violence during an assembly of two or more or if officials intentionally obstructed or interfered with a law enforcement agency's ability to “provide reasonable law enforcement protection.”

Anyone who during an unlawful assembly mutilated, defaced, defiled any publicly owned structure, including monuments and cemeteries, would be guilty of a felony punishable by one to 15 years in prison.

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Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.