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New York county lawmakers pass contentious bill allowing police to sue protesters for harassment

Critics of the proposed law said it was unnecessary and could have a chilling effect on protesters' First Amendment rights.
Image: Protestors and police clash during pro Black Lives Matter march in East Meadow, New York
Nassau police officers surround a man taking part in a Black Lives Matter march in East Meadow, N.Y., on June 12, 2020.Alejandra Villa Loarca / Newsday via Getty Images file

County lawmakers in New York approved a bill Monday allowing police officers and other first responders to sue people who harass them because of their profession.

The bill, which passed the Nassau County legislature in a 12-6 vote, still needs the signature of county executive Laura Curran.

The vote came after hours of often-heated public comments, including from police union officials and NAACP members.

Tracey Edwards, the NAACP’s regional director, said that police officers can already arrest people who harass them. And she said the bill “disrespected” movements that had fought against discrimination.

“What you are doing with this bill is you are taking this profession and you are putting that chosen profession above all of those people who fought during the Civil Rights movement,” she said.

Reading from the bill’s text, Brian Sullivan, president of Nassau County Correction Officers Benevolent Association, said the law was necessary because of a “widespread pattern of physical attacks and intimidation directed at the police.”

But neither union officials nor the legislative text cite specific examples from Nassau County, which is outside New York City on Long Island.

Critics of the proposed law said it was unnecessary and poorly drafted and could have a chilling effect on protesters' First Amendment rights.

One commenter argued that the bill’s lack of detailed definitions of harassment, menacing and other conduct would give officers too much power to pursue a lawsuit. That commenter cited as a hypothetical that under the proposed provisions, Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of George Floyd's murder, would be able to sue bystanders who yelled at him as he pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck.

According to the legislative text, officers can pursue civil penalties of $25,000 per violation or a total of $50,000 if those violations occurred during a riot.

A spokeswoman for Curran did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but she told News 12 that she would seek a review of the legislation from the state attorney general.