Reforms Introduced to Protect the Freedom of Assembly

In the wake of criticism about law enforcement’s response to nationwide racial justice protests in 2020, local, state, and the federal government have proposed reforms to better protect the freedom of assembly. This resource page provides examples of some of these reforms.

The reforms discussed below have been introduced or enacted after the beginning of the nationwide protests for racial justice, in late May 2020. The listed reforms are not necessarily best practices and in some cases could be further strengthened, but they represent important efforts to better protect assembly rights. We plan to periodically update this briefer.

George Floyd protests in Columbus, Ohio (Photo: Paul Becker/Wikimedia)

Restrictions on Less Lethal Weapons

When used in the context of protests, certain types of less lethal weapons, like tear gas, rubber bullets, and sonic weapons, are indiscriminate by their very nature. These weapons should never be used in the context of First Amendment assemblies. For an analysis of the most common types of reforms and recommendations on restrictions see ICNL’s briefer on Legislative Options to Restrict the Use of Less Lethal Weapons in Crowd Control.

Tear Gas and Chemical Irritants

Initiatives in at least 19 municipalities, 12 states (+DC), and the federal government.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1994 Chemical Weapons Convention prohibit the use of agents like tear gas in warfare, yet they remain a tool for many US law enforcement agencies. When deployed via large-scale canisters or through grenades, tear gas and other chemical irritants such as pepper spray can do indiscriminate harm, and as such is an inappropriate response to protests.

Prohibiting or Restricting the Use of Chemical Irritants at Protests

Enacted:

Pending:

  • States: California (AB 48); Indiana (SB 391); Washington (HB 1054); Florida (HB 187); South Carolina (H 3049); Virginia (HB 5091); New York (A 99); New Hampshire (HB 564).
  • Municipalities: New Orleans, LA (new police department policy); Richmond, VA (plan from police)

Expired/Did Not Pass:

Rubber Bullets and “Less Lethal” Projectiles

Initiatives in at least 10 municipalities, 8 states (+DC), and the federal government.

Rubber bullets and other “less lethal” kinetic projectiles can cause serious physical and psychological harm. They should never be used to control crowds at a demonstration.

Prohibiting or Restricting Use of Kinetic Energy Projectiles at Protests

Enacted:

Proposed:

  • States: California (AB 48); Indiana (SB 391);Florida (HB 187); South Carolina (H 3049); New Hampshire (HB 564).
  • Municipalities: Atlanta, GA (20-0-1450). Richmond, VA (plan from police); New Orleans, LA (new police department policy).

Expired/Did Not Pass:

Sonic Weapons

Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs), or “sound cannons,” can be used as a sonic weapon by emitting loud and painful levels of noise that can cause long-term hearing loss. Human rights advocates have called for a suspension on their use to police crowds until their effects are better studied.

  • The City Council of Seattle, WA, prohibited the police’s use of acoustic weapons against crowds (CB 119805).
  • The Mayor of Portland, OR, directed police to only use LRADs as a communication device and to not use their “sonic warning tone” against crowds.

Restrictions on the Transfer of Military Weapons to Local Law Enforcement

Local law enforcement has increasingly used inappropriate and intimidating military gear to police protests, including grenade launchers, armored vehicles, and military drones. The militarization of local law enforcement is partly the result of the federal government’s 1033 program, which allows for the transfer of weapons and equipment from the military to local law enforcement.

  • Washington D.C. enacted legislation that banned the city from acquiring certain military equipment from the federal government, including armored or weaponized vehicles and drones, grenades and grenade launchers, and firearms above a certain caliber (B23-0825).
  • Virginia enacted legislation that prohibits law enforcement agencies in the state from acquiring weaponized drones, combat aircraft, grenades, and grenade launchers, standard-issue military rifles, combat configured armored vehicles, or camouflage uniforms (HB 5049).
  • New York state lawmakers introduced legislation that would prevent law enforcement from receiving certain military equipment from the federal government, including grenades and grenade launchers, armored vehicles, and armored or weaponized drones (S 8507 / AB 10660).
  • Madison, WI City Council passed legislation that prohibits the police department from procuring property from the 1033 program (61252).
  • The City Council of Pittsburgh, PA, is considering legislation that would prohibit the city from receiving any military weapons from the Department of Defense (2020-0406).
  • The City Council of Atlanta, GA, introduced an ordinance that would prohibit the use of military-style vehicles (20-0-1450).
  • Members of Congress have proposed adding new restrictions to the federal1033 program. The Obama administration had limited the program, including by banning the transfer of certain types of military weapons and heightening training and other requirements for the transfer of other weapons, but these restrictions were lifted by the Trump administration.

Restrictions on Surveillance Technology

Police forces have acquired increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology, such as aerial and drone surveillance technology, facial recognition technology, and cell-site simulators. This technology has often been used to disproportionately surveil communities of color and it raises particular concerns in the context of demonstrations.

In response, cities across the nation, such as Nashville, Seattle, and Oakland, have adopted Community Control Over Police Surveillance legislation. The measures in this legislation vary but generally include transparency requirements for the procurement of new surveillance technology; a community advisory committee to create standards for procurement; reports on the technologies’ anticipated impact; and ongoing reporting requirements on their use. Some cities, such as San Francisco and Oakland, have prohibited the use of facial recognition technology by the government altogether.

  • New York City enacted legislation that requires the police department to issue an impact and use report for surveillance technologies that is open for public comment. The use of the technologies is periodically audited.
  • Massachusetts enacted legislation that prohibits government agencies from using facial recognition technology without a warrant (S 2963).
  • The City Council of Boston, MA, passed an ordinance that prohibits the use of facial recognition technology by the city of Boston.
  • The City Council of Portland, OR, passed two ordinances that prohibit the use of facial recognition technology by both government agencies and private entities in places of public accommodation.
  • Members of Congress introduced the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act that would place a temporary prohibition on the use of facial recognition and biometric technology by the federal government and state and local governments that receive federal funding.

Reforming Public Order Laws

Public order laws, such as unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct, and rioting, that have overbroad provisions are often used to arrest peaceful protesters. Some states have introduced bills to better target these laws to limit their abuse.

  • Washington DC introduced the Riot Modernization Amendment Act, which among other elements would eliminate the incitement to riot provision of the DC’s anti-riot act and require that those charged under the statute actually have to commit violence themselves. (Bill 230723 2020)
  • Legislators in Kentucky introduced legislation that would amend its anti-riot act to ensure that those charged under it had to actually commit violence themselves and that rioting was not triggered by the mere “danger” of damage to property or violence. (HB 246 2021)

Repeal of Anti-Face Mask Laws

Seventeen states have anti-face covering laws. These laws have been used in the past to target protesters, and during COVID-19 create a unique danger to public health. For more information, see ICNL’s briefer on anti-mask laws, COVID-19, and the First Amendment.

  • Washington D.C. repealed its anti-face covering law in its entirety (B23-0825).
  • New York state repealed it anti-face covering law in its entirety (S 8415)

Requiring Officer Identification

In order to enhance law enforcement’s accountability during demonstrations, law enforcement officers should prominently display identification, including a name or badge number, as well as their law enforcement agency.

  • Washington D.C. already required enhanced identification of police officers’ names and badge numbers at First Amendment assemblies; new legislation passed by the City Council requires that the uniforms and helmets of officers responding to a First Amendment assembly also prominently identify them as D.C. police, as opposed to the National Guard or federal law enforcement (B23-0825).
  • Legislation in Texas would require enhanced officer identification for officers in riot gear (HB 496).
  • An amendment introduced by Senator Murphy to the National Defense Authorization Act in Congress would require all federal officers or members of the armed forces engaged in crowd control to visibly display identifying information (S 3909).
  • A legislative proposal in Oregon would require all law enforcement involved in crowd control to display on the front and back of a uniform an a peace officer’s last name, badge number, or other identifying information. Upon request from the public, the officer would have to provide their name and badge number. A violation would be an official misconduct of the 2nd degree. (LC 743)

Last Updated: January 21, 2021

For more information contact Nick Robinson at nrobinson@icnl.org or Elly Page at epage@icnl.org.