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Activists say new harassment law “tramples on the first amendment’

Rev. Lewis Stewart, faith leaders and criminal justice advocates are asking Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo not to sign a controversial law. 

The measure, passed this month, makes it illegal to annoy, alarm or threaten the personal safety of first responders and various forms of law enforcement. Those who do, would face a hefty fine and possibly jail time. It passed in a party-line vote earlier this month. The bill’s co-author, County Legislator Karla Boyce, said she was inspired to introduce the bill by recent instances of first responders put in danger.

Opponents say similar bills were stuck down in courts because they were overbroad and unconstitutional. They’re also worried the law would disproportionately affect people of color.

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Stewart calls the bill ridiculous, tyrannical and said it “tramples on the first amendment.” 

“A police officer might be annoyed by a citizen using a phone and his or her camera or annoyed by a protest sign and they will suffer a penalty via this legislation,” said Stewart. 

Democratic Legislator Vince Felder said he asked the county’s law department to explain the circumstances where someone could be charged with annoying an officer. He said they couldn’t. Felder doesn’t doubt the sincerity behind the bill but he does question its language, in particular, using the word annoy.

“First of all, it’s a subjective thought process that you’ve put in the hands of a police officer,” Felder said. “Secondly, the (U.S.) Supreme Court has ruled over and over again that you can cuss police officers out, you can stick your middle finger up at them, you can do just about anything and it’s protected.”

Felder also said that Republican lawmakers didn’t follow appropriate protocol because the bill was considered as ‘a matter of urgency’ and was not taken through the typical committee process. 

A nearly identical law is on the table in Broome County. Several people were arrested and more than 100 protesters packed a county legislature meeting in Binghamton Thursday. Their goal was to stop an ordinance nearly identical to Monroe County’s. 

The measure has not yet been approved in Binghamton. In law awaits Dinolfo’s signature in Monroe County. That’s expected in December.

The group also took issue with efforts of local law enforcement leaders to slow down the state’s criminal justice reforms. The new laws limit pre-trial detention and eliminate cash bail for nonviolent offenses, among other changes. They take effect in January.

Law enforcement leaders across the state, including many in Rochester, are asking that Gov. Andrew Cuomo reconsider the new laws and give them more time and money for implementation.

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.