A co-sponsor of a controversial bill passed by Republicans in the Kentucky Senate that would make it a crime to insult police officers says the legislation is intended to help officers “protect themselves” from protesters.
Republican state Sen. Danny Carroll told Yahoo News that Senate Bill 211, which was passed on March 12 on a 22-11 vote and now is headed to the Kentucky House, is meant to be a “tool” to protect police at demonstrations like those that unfolded in the wake of the killing of 26-year-old African American Breonna Taylor in March 2020.
“This bill is not meant to stifle the emotion,” Carroll told Yahoo News. “It's meant to protect the officers, because in those situations, when you’ve got someone that’s right up in your face, yelling in your face, waving their arms, calling you every name that you can think of … they have no ability to protect themselves.”
Carroll, a former police officer, says the disrespect he’s witnessed firsthand is what led him to push for the bill’s passage.
“There is a huge silent majority in this country that doesn’t like the way our law enforcement are treated these days,” he said. “It seems that it’s open season on law enforcement. Since when did that become OK in our country?”
S.B. 211 would make it a misdemeanor to challenge or taunt an officer with words or gestures that “would have a direct tendency to provoke a violent response from the perspective of a reasonable and prudent person.” A conviction would be punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $250.
The bill also discourages local governments from defunding their police departments, and would hold criminally responsible those who give protesters objects that can be used as weapons.
State Sen. David Yates, a Democrat who voted against the bill, called it “dangerous,” and told his fellow members on a Senate committee that he believed “good cops” have enough poise not to react to passionate rhetoric hurled at them by demonstrators.
“It makes my stomach turn, because I don’t believe any of my good officers are going to provoke a violent response because someone does a ‘your mama’ joke or whatnot,” Yates said to the committee.
Last summer, following the police killings of unarmed Black people including Taylor and George Floyd, protests erupted all over the country. While some protests were marred by violent clashes with law enforcement and instances of vandalism resulting in the destruction of property, the overwhelming majority were peaceful. In fact, according to the Washington Post, 96.3 percent of Black Lives Matter demonstrations it analyzed involved no property damage or police injuries, and in 97.7 percent of these events, no injuries were reported among participants, bystanders or police.
Critics of S.B. 211 are quick to point out that peaceful protest and the ability to lawfully assemble are protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, for instance, has called the measure “an extreme bill to stifle dissent.”
“This is clearly an attack on free speech,” Angela Cooper, communications director of the ACLU of Kentucky, told Yahoo News. “This legislation is trying to send a message that [protesters’ safety is not going to be a priority]. … It’s insulting.”
Cooper also suggested that the bill is racially biased.
“Some Kentuckians’ freedom of speech is under attack, and it depends who you are,” she added.
University of Kentucky law professor Cortney Lollar agreed, saying the bill “appears unconstitutionally vague and overly broad.”
“The average person will not necessarily know what words a police officer will find so offensive as to lead the officer to have a violent response,” Lollar told Yahoo News.
“The officer does not have to be harmed in any way by the words or actions; they just have to find the words or gestures provoking enough that it causes them to react violently, whether the officer actually responds violently or not,” she added.
The fact that this bill was introduced just days before the one-year anniversary of Taylor’s killing also isn’t lost on most critics, including Lollar. She noted that “Black Americans are already arrested, charged and convicted at disproportionate rates” to their white peers. S.B. 211, she said, is a “tremendous step backwards” for racial justice in Kentucky.
“This bill feels to many communities, but especially to Black communities, like a slap in the face, an action intended to further challenge and attempt to silence those who are peacefully honoring [Taylor’s] life and protesting her death,” Lollar said.
Carroll, meanwhile, contended that his bill is not “racially motivated,” and asserted without evidence that it would deter a “level of rioting that is unprecedented.”
S.B. 211 still has some hurdles ahead. It requires input from the Kentucky House, but that must come before the end of the legislative session on March 30, which seems unlikely. However, Carroll plans to refile the bill next session with improvements.
Carroll wants the passage of the legislation to serve as a message to Kentucky residents and visitors.
“I want them to know that the welcome mat is no longer out in Kentucky for you to come into our commonwealth, to terrorize our people, to destroy our city, to assault our people,” he said. “That’s just not something that we want to tolerate. Now, if you want to come to the commonwealth and peacefully protest, you are welcome.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images, Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
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