Georgia Senate Approves Limits on Protests
By Melissa Maynard, Staff Writer
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 $1,000 a day for picketers found guilty and $10,000 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."