On Monday, Aug. 2, lawmakers in Nassau County, New York, passed a bill many are now saying is a direct attack on the First Amendment freedoms of protesters.
Policymakers in Nassau County approved a piece of legislation in a 12-6 vote that would allow police officers and other first responders to sue people who harass them because of their profession. In addition, the document states that the “aggrieved” personnel could pursue civil penalties of $25,000 per violation or a total of $50,000 if those violations occurred during a riot.
The bill is still waiting on a signature from County Executive Laura Curran before it can be authorized, but it’s unclear whether she will do so, according to the outlet. In a statement to News 12, the politician said she would be reaching out to the attorney general’s office to “review and provide some advice.”
“I’m proud of the dedicated first responders who’ve made Nassau the safest county in America, and I will continue to stand against defunding the police. My administration is committed to protecting the brave men and women of law enforcement who keep us safe,” Curran continued.
“There were many speakers today who questioned this legislation. Now that it has been passed by the legislature, I will be making an inquiry to the Attorney General’s office to review and provide some advice.”
However, the bill did more than stir up a few questions. It also drew glaring criticism from local leaders in the Long Island, New York, community, activists who met at the legislative chambers for a public meeting that reportedly lasted eight hours. Also in attendance were members of law enforcement unions.
The NAACP’s regional director, Tracey Edwards, highlighted that police already have the ability to arrest people who harass them and that the legislature “disrespected” social justice movements and is in “retaliation” to organizations such as Black Lives Matter. “What you are doing with this bill is you are taking this profession, and you are putting that chosen profession above all of those people who fought during the civil rights movement,” she said.
A particular point of contention for critics is the bill’s “irrebuttable presumption” protection component. Human rights laws in the county grant protected classes the right to sue for offenses committed against them because of their identities as members of those classes.
First responders were granted protected class status under those laws in 2019. But a person making a claim of, for example, racial discrimination, under the human rights laws must prove in court that the conduct was motivated by racial animus. The new bill would remove such a requirement for first responders.
This could mean a police officer pursuing a harassment claim under the new statute would not need to prove the behavior of the person being sued was driven by a bias against police.
Civil rights attorney Frederick Brewington told KTVZ, “This is trying to shut down and dampen and chill the voices of those who would dissent and raise their voices against abuse by police.”
Yet, those in favor of the bill say it is necessary in order to ensure the safety of those hired to protect and serve. Brian Sullivan, president of Nassau County Correction Officers Benevolent Association, cited the “widespread pattern of physical attacks and intimidation directed at the police,” although the union official nor the bill’s text could cite specific instances.