Georgia Senate Approves Limits on Protests

By: - March 16, 2012 12:00 am

Occupy Atlanta has been stepping up its efforts to air its grievances against the 1 percent, with protests at and around a number of Atlanta-area businesses. Earlier this week, Occupy Atlanta protesters rallied against Chase bank’s foreclosure practices by staging sit-ins and dancing on the tops of cars parked at branch parking lots. Others are setting up shop on the lawns of people who are facing foreclosure in an attempt to delay the process by preventing notices from being served.

Perhaps most visibly, a crew is camping out near AT&T’s Atlanta offices to protest what they say is the unjust layoff of hundreds of employees who have helped the company achieve record profitability. Some members were charged with criminal trespass for protesting inside AT&T’s offices and refusing to leave.

A bill passed by the Georgia Senate on March 7 would create a separate “high and aggravated” misdemeanor of “conspiracy to commit criminal trespass” that Occupy protesters believe could land them in jail for up to a year for actions like their protests at AT&T. The House has not yet voted on the measure.

“We rolled up to AT&T on February 13 and a week later there is bill at the state legislature that is clearly aimed at weakening both unions and Occupy Atlanta,” says Sara Amis, a spokesperson for Occupy Atlanta.

The bill prohibits mass pickets at private residences and near places of employment when they block movement in and out of a building. Amis and labor leaders say that the bill is overly broad and interferes with their First Amendment rights. The bill imposes civil fines of ,000 a day for picketers found guilty and ,000 a day for unions or other organizations found to be aiding the picketers, which the court may pass along to the affected businesses if damages are shown because of the picketing.

“It’s bound to be struck down eventually in court, but the state of Georgia and the taxpayers are going to have to pay to defend it,” Anis says.

AT&T spokesperson Sage Rhodes says AT&T has not been supporting the bill. Supporters, including the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, say the bill is necessary to protect private property rights and is content-neutral and tailored narrowly enough to hold up in court.

“Property rights are among the oldest and most cherished of all individual rights,” says a Chamber of Commerce fact sheet about the bill. “…This legislation recognizes the inherent need to protect the property of others and is designed to punish organizations that instruct their members to commit vandalism in an attempt to disrupt an employer’s operations or to intimidate customers and related entities.”

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Melissa Maynard

Melissa Maynard oversees the Pew state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource, which helps policymakers understand fiscal, economic, and demographic trends affecting their states by tracking tax revenue, reserves, employment rates, Medicaid spending, and other issues important to long-term fiscal health.