LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Asa Hutchinson has vetoed a bill that would have banned “mass picketing” and an appropriation bill to pay for school districts’ panic button alert systems.
Hutchinson’s office on Friday released letters by the governor announcing and explaining the vetoes. In one letter, Hutchinson said Senate Bill 550 by Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, which would create the offense of mass picketing, “is overbroad, vague, and will have the effect of restricting both free speech and the right to assemble.”
Under the bill, a person would be guilty of a misdemeanor if he or she engaged in a mass demonstration that hindered people from pursuing lawful work or employment; blocked roadways, railroads or airports; blocked entrance to or egress from a place of employment or a private residence; or included a threat of violence or intimidation made near a private residence.
The bill also would have created civil liability for people who commit the offense.
Hutchinson, who has a law degree, said in his letter the bill fails to state clear parameters under which the law would apply and could provide an opportunity for law enforcement to impede the exercise of constitutional rights. He said the law states that it would not apply to a person validly exercising his or her constitutional rights, but it “fails to identify bright-line differentiation between constitutionally protected activity and activity subject to the penalties outlined in the bill.”
The governor also said existing laws prohibit disruptive conduct, obstructing governmental operations, disrupting campus activities and obstructing emergency medical personnel.
“While Senator Garner’s goal — public safety — is admirable, I believe this bill will have a chilling effect on free speech and the right to assemble,” Hutchinson wrote.
Garner, also a lawyer, said Friday he was “disappointed in the governor’s veto of my bill.”
“I think this was reasonable legislation that did not run into any constitutional issues from a plain reading of the law,” he said.
Garner said he had not yet decided whether to seek an override of the veto. The Legislature can override a governor’s veto with a simple majority vote in each chamber.
Garner said he filed the bill in response to several recent protests he believed interfered with other people’s rights, including one that blocked a street in Fayetteville and one in which Black Lives Matter protesters blocked Interstate 40 in Memphis.
In a separate letter, Hutchinson said he vetoed SB 446 by Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, an $850,000 appropriation for school districts’ panic button alert systems, because the systems were created under a pilot program with the understanding that the districts eventually would pay for the systems themselves, if they chose.
Teague, co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, said Friday he did not plan to seek an override. He said the appropriation is not included in the state budget that lawmakers and the governor recently approved and said he only filed the bill “in case they found some grant money somewhere.”
“I don’t have any heartburn with it at all,” he said of the veto.
Last month, Hutchinson vetoed House Bill 1581 by Rep. Him Hammer, R-Benton, which would have require state agencies to commission surveys of employees to gather information about job satisfaction, employee engagement and possibilities for improvement, among other things. A motion in the House to override the veto fell nine votes short of passing.