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NAACP files lawsuit against Oklahoma's anti-protest law

NAACP files lawsuit against Oklahoma's anti-protest law
The NAACP filed the lawsuit against HB 1674 saying it was introduced to chill racial justice organizations that mobilized following the police killing of George Floyd last year. Photo by Jemal Countess/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 31 (UPI) -- Civil rights groups have filed a lawsuit against a controversial anti-protest law set to go into effect in a month's time they say is not only unconstitutional but was written to discourage peaceful demonstrations.

The lawsuit was filed Monday by the NAACP, its Oklahoma chapter, the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center and local attorney Melvin Hall challenging House Bill 1674, which Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law April 22 and is to go into effect on Nov. 1.

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The GOP-bill makes it a crime to obstruct traffic, grants immunity to drivers who unintentionally kill or injure protesters while fleeing a riot and imposes fines against organizations that are found to be associated with people who participate in riots.

The civil rights groups say the law was introduced in response to nationwide protests against racial inequality following the police-involved killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day of last year in Minneapolis, and "chills Oklahoma NAACP's efforts to mobilize Black people and their allies to advocate for racial justice."

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"Last year, the country watched a video of a man being brutally murdered by law enforcement. Rather than trying to prevent such future injustices in this state, Oklahoma dedicated its efforts to silencing those who fight against injustice," Oklahoma State NAACP President Anthony Douglas said in a statement. "The First and 14th Amendments demand that HB 1674 be struck down."

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The lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma says the legislation violates the Constitution and poses "an existential threat" to the NAACP and other racial justice organizations.

In the court document, they accuse the state of building upon its existing criminal-conspiracy statue by using "unconstitutionally vague and overbroad terms" to punish racial justice organizations with "devastating fines" over associations with those who commit unlawful acts.

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"Oklahoma's anti-protest law seeks to stop organizations like the NAACP from engaging in rallies, marches and peaceful demonstrations -- actions that have always been at the heart of the civil rights movement's challenges to unlawful acts and unjust conditions," NAACP Interim General Counsel Janette Wallace said.

Concerning the law's designation of obstructing traffic as a criminal offense, the lawsuit says it uses vague and overbroad terms to criminalize First Amendment protected activities.

"The provision provides no definition of the terms 'approach' or 'unreasonably inconvenient,'" the court document said. "And, although the provision defines 'obstruct' in part to mean 'to render impassable' that definition provides no measure of time during which the street must actually be impassable before someone violates the provision. Five minutes, five seconds or some other temporal interval might all trigger a violation."

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Oklahoma state Rep. Kevin West, one of the bill's authors, told KFOR in a statement that the bill is about protecting citizens from violence.

"House Bill 1674 protects law abiding citizens who find themselves caught in the midst of dangerous and illegal actions at no fault of their own," he said. "This law maintains the constitutional right to peaceably assemble while also reinforcing our citizen's rights to be secure in their life, liberty and property."

The office of Attorney General John O'Connor, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, told the news organization in a statement that they will "review the lawsuit and plan to vigorously defend the constitutionality of this law."

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