Georgia Republicans like to talk about honoring and protecting the U.S. Constitution. But they are about to pass a law that blatantly violates one of its most important protections, the freedom of speech.
I’m not a fan of picketing or demonstrations at private residences; as a matter of policy and decency, family homes ought to be off-limits. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Frisby v. Schultz, agreed, with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor writing the majority opinion upholding a ban on demonstrations enacted by Brookfield, Wisc.:
“The type of picketers banned by the Brookfield ordinance generally do not seek to disseminate a message to the general public, but to intrude upon the targeted resident, and to do so in an especially offensive way. Moreover, even if some such picketers have a broader communicative purpose, their activity nonetheless inherently and offensively intrudes on residential privacy. The devastating effect of targeted picketing on the quiet enjoyment of the home is beyond doubt.”
The core of O’Connor’s argument was that picketing and demonstrations targeting a private home are less expressions of speech than they are attempts to harass and intimidate. I think that’s right.
However, Senate Bill 469 is a very different animal. Sponsored by state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Gwinnett, the bill attempts to use O’Connor’s argument to justify a limited ban on picketing of private homes that “interfere(s) with the resident’s right of peaceful quiet enjoyment.” It’s that “limited” part that so clearly violates the Constitution.
Under SB 469, you see, the only people or groups that are banned from protesting outside private residences in Georgia are labor unions and union members.
As the bill’s sponsors have made very clear, SB 469 would still allow anti-abortion protesters to demonstrate outside the home of a physician or hospital executive. Environmental groups would still be able to protest outside the homes of company executives. Church groups could still protest outside the homes of strip-club operators.
Labor unions — and only labor unions — would be prevented from expressing their opinions in such a manner. And only company executives who might be targeted by such protests would be protected by the law. Everybody else is on their own.
Because that provision so blatantly discriminates against a particular point of view and against a particular group of people, it is also blatantly unconstitutional.
This is not an arcane point of constitutional law. It is not a close call. Georgia legislators know that what they’re about to pass violates the right to free speech, but they don’t seem to care much.
The bill has already passed the Senate. This morning, in a surprise 9 a.m. committee meeting that wasn’t publicly announced until after 8 a.m., it was also approved by the House Industrial Relations Committee by an 8-1 vote. Democrats on the committee weren’t warned of the meeting beforehand, so only one managed to make the vote. (Another bill significantly cutting unemployment benefits for jobless Georgians was approved at the same time.)
To their credit, Tea Party supporters in Georgia also oppose the bill, recognizing that a government that tries to discriminate on the basis of what message is being communicated is a dangerous government to everybody. But their voices, like the voices of so many others, are drowned out by the voice of those who speak loudly and wield big bucks.
– Jay Bookman