Protecting the First Amendment from Senator Scott Martin

On Friday, May 5th, PA State Senator Scott Martin forwarded a request for co-sponsorship for a bill he will later introduce. The stated reason for the new law is to help local and state governments collect the costs associated with "illegal or destructive behavior" that occurs during an otherwise legal protest.

One paragraph in Senator Martin's memo is extremely concerning:

In addition to remedies currently allowed by law, this legislation would allow for the recovery of costs by holding a person or persons civilly liable for response costs related to a demonstration if the person is convicted for rioting or is a public nuisance under 18 Pa.C.S. § 5501 or §6504, or if the person is involved in hosting the demonstration. (emphasis added).

This appears to say that anyone who hosts, or is part of a hosting organization, of any otherwise legal protest would be responsible for any response costs associated with the demonstration (if one reads this paragraph broadly) or if anyone who attends the protest is later convicted of rioting or "is a public nuisance" under PA law (if one reads this paragraph narrowly).

First (but less importantly), let me point out that under PA law, a person cannot be a public nuisance. The definition of "public nuisance" according to Title 53 Section 6103 of the PA Consolidated Statutes is:

"Public nuisance."  Property which, because of its physical condition or use, is regarded as a public nuisance at common law or has been declared by the appropriate official a public nuisance in accordance with a municipal code.

 

Secondly, but more importantly, holding a person or an organization of people who "host" an activity protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and Article 1 Section 20 of the PA Constitution liable for the costs related to either general "response costs" or more particularly those governmental costs related to the actions of someone at the protest clearly would have a chilling effect on the exercise of those constitutional rights.

This type of legislation would not pass the proverbial "laugh test" in court and I urge the PA Senate to carefully read the details of Senator Martin's proposal before agreeing to cosponsor or vote in favor of it.