By: Daniel McElroy

Arkansas Protest

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson vetoed Senate Bill 550 last week, after his state’s legislature had fast tracked the particularly egregious anti-protest bill through both houses in less than a month.

SB 550 would have created the misdemeanor offense of “unlawful mass picketing,” defined as any demonstration that hinders “the pursuit of lawful work or employment,” obstructs entrances or exits of buildings, blocks any sort of transportation infrastructure, or occurs at a private residence.

A letter from Governor Hutchinson sent to the legislature on April 7 expressed his problems with the bill in its current form, calling it “vague as it fails to sufficiently provide the public or law enforcement with the parameters under which the statute would be utilized. The bill would provide an opportunity for law enforcement to apply criminal statutes to public assembly and, in being vague in its definition, could impede the exercise of constitutional rights,” the governor said. Specifically, Governor Hutchinson identified the 1st Amendment rights of free speech and freedom to assemble as being under threat by SB 550.

Senator Trent Garner introduced the legislation in response to a now-debunked story in which a school bus full of Arkansas students was apparently vandalized in Washington, D.C. during January’s Women’s March. The bill was part of a wave of Republican sponsored anti-protest legislation in state legislatures across the country.

SB 550 was filed on March 2, and Arkansas’s Republican-controlled legislature worked hard to get it to the governor’s desk before the end of the month. When notified that Governor Hutchinson had vetoed the bill, Senator Garner made clear that he and his colleagues intended to “weigh all our options,” including potentially attempting to override the veto when the legislature reconvenes in early May.

Still, it is important to keep in mind that Governor Hutchinson’s decision to veto SB 550 was in large part influenced by the thousands of calls, emails, and tweets he received from Arkansans expressing their disagreement with the bill’s infringements on constitutional rights. This kind of public oversight and engagement can and will continue to hold state governments accountable to their constituents, and it will hopefully keep the Arkansas legislature from overriding Governor Hutchinson’s very important veto next month. Keep it up.

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