The Kentucky legislature has moved one step closer to making it illegal to taunt, mock, or insult police officers so much that they react with force. On Thursday, a state Senate committee voted 7-3 to advance a bill that would make criminals of people who are assaulted by law enforcement, even if their behavior is provocative but non-violent.
According to the bill, officially designated as SB 211:
A person is guilty of disorderly conduct in the second degree when in a public place and with intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm, or wantonly creating a risk thereof, he [...] Accosts, insults, taunts, or challenges a law enforcement officer with offensive or derisive words, or by gestures or other physical contact, that would have a direct tendency to provoke a violent response from the perspective of a reasonable and prudent person.
The criminalization of insulting, or even simply "challeng[ing]" police officers is the brainchild of Republican State Sen. Danny Carroll, a former cop, who told The Louisville Courier Journal he was inspired after witnessing the social and criminal justice "riots" this past summer.
"This is not about lawful protest in any way, shape, form or fashion," Carroll told the paper. "This country was built on lawful protest, and it's something that we must maintain — our citizens' right to do so."
"What this deals with are those who cross the line and commit criminal acts," Carroll added, seemingly oblivious to — or cravenly uncaring about – the fact that he is the one pushing to criminalize those very acts. Indeed, some of the "criminal acts" listed in Carroll's bill have themselves been ruled extremely legal by various courts. In 2019, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals declared that "Fits of rudeness or lack of gratitude may violate the Golden Rule, but that doesn't make them illegal or for that matter punishable" after a Michigan driver was pulled over for giving a police officer the finger. Similarly, it's largely legal to swear at cops, so long as you're not expressly advocating for violence — a grey area in which Carroll's bill, should it be made into law, would certainly lie.
Carroll explained that he created the bill to allow police the legal authority to "react" when "you see people getting up in officers' faces, yelling in their ears, doing everything they can to provoke a violent response."
The protests that erupted nationwide in summer 2020 were largely in response to police violence against Black people — including Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT, who was shot and killed in her home by Louisville, Kentucky police officers. Protesters took to the street again in the fall, after a grand jury announced its decision not to charge any of the officers for her death.
The new Kentucky bill, which now heads to the full state Senate, has already received harsh pushback. "The idea that the legislature would be criminalizing speech in such a way is offensive," ACLU of Kentucky attorney Corey Shapiro told The Courier Journal. "Verbally challenging police action — even if by insult or offensive language — is a cornerstone of our democracy. And the First Amendment protects people's ability to express themselves, even if it's using offensive words to the police."
Democratic State Sen. David Yates similarly condemned the bill, calling it "dangerous" to The Courier Journal, even though "I don't believe that any of my good officers are going to be provoked to a violent response because somebody does a 'yo mama' joke, or whatnot."
The current Kentucky legislative session ends at the end of March, meaning if the bill does pass the Senate, it would need to be rushed through the state House in order to become law this coming year.