LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A bill that would impose harsher penalties on protesters who loot, riot or commit other crimes got a chilly reception Wednesday from a Nebraska legislative committee, with some lawmakers saying it would infringe on free-speech rights and punish those who gather peacefully.

The measure was modeled after a recently passed Tennessee law and introduced in response to last year’s Black Lives Matter protests in Omaha and Lincoln that led to property damage and one death. It would create felony charges for people who damage or spray-paint law enforcement property, throw bodily fluids or aim laser pointers at officers, or knowingly participate in a riot where someone is seriously hurt, among other actions.

“This is simply not acceptable, and we must make this type of behavior as unattractive as possible,” said Sen. Joni Albrecht, of Thurston, who sponsored the proposal.

The measure won support last year from a coalition of conservative lawmakers, but it was met with loud criticism from protesters who disrupted their public announcement outside the Capitol. Its prospects in the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee are unclear.

Sen. Terrell McKinney, who participated in some of the Black Lives Matter protests in Omaha, said law enforcement officers should also be held accountable for their actions during the protests.

McKinney, of Omaha, said he was tear-gassed at one point and witnessed officers provoking protesters during the conflict. He said the bill would undermine the rights of people who want to protest injustices such as the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

“I just feel like there is more effort to protect law enforcement than there is to make sure a Black man or woman isn’t killed by police,” said McKinney, who is Black.

Sen. Steve Lathrop, an Omaha attorney and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said it’s difficult for lawmakers to pass such a measure without running afoul of protesters’ constitutional right to assemble peacefully. As the proposal is currently written, opponents said prosecutors would be able to charge anyone who was present at a riot with crimes that took place during it.

Spike Eickholt, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska and the state’s criminal defense attorneys, said many of the offenses listed in the proposal are already illegal and can be prosecuted under current laws. He said the bill was an overly broad attempt to retaliate against the sometimes-violent protests and the damage they caused.

 

“You have a right to protest that can’t be thwarted if somebody shows up and throws a rock,” Eickholt said.

Eickholt said many aspects of the proposal could have unintended consequences. He pointed to the stiffer proposed punishments for vandalizing public property, saying they could be applied to students writing their names on a school sidewalk.

But Sen. Suzanne Geist, of Lincoln, alluded to the fact that Omaha and Lincoln were under city-ordered curfews that many of the protesters ignored.

“I’m just trying to walk the line between where does criminal activity begin and where does peaceful protest end,” she said.