Public panel held to discuss protections of civil liberties in Missouri

Panelists addressed community members’ questions and discussed legislation to be changed, voted against or initiated in order to protect civil liberties regarding reproductive rights, discrimination and other issues.

The Daniel Boone Regional Library hosted a state general assembly panel on human rights on Jan. 25, 2018. courtesy of KOMU News via Flickr

The Mid-Missouri Civil Liberties Association hosted a panel Thursday night at the Daniel Boone Regional Library to discuss legislation on civil liberty issues such as disparities in policing, discrimination, reproductive rights, medical marijuana and government assistance programs. The panel was open to the public.

Seven panelists were in attendance. Each panelist focused on legislation they are pushing to get through during the current Missouri General Assembly session.

The legislative session began early this month, but the General Assembly has until the end of May to conduct hearings and vote on bills. Community members can check summaries, statuses and dates surrounding bills on the Missouri General Assembly website. Panelist Rudi Keller of the Columbia Daily Tribune encouraged constituents to vocalize their concerns with legislators before votes take place.

“I think that the best thing you can do about any of these issues that you’re most concerned about is to make sure your local legislators understand what you want from them,” Keller said. “Because a contact from a constituent is as powerful or more powerful than contact from the donors because you represent a voter.”

Rod Chapel, Missouri NAACP president, addressed Senate Bill 43, a bill passed in June that requires someone filing a discrimination suit to prove bias as the explicit reason they were fired, denied housing or otherwise discriminated against. Previously, the law required proof that bias was one of the factors. The passage of SB 43 initiated the NAACP’s travel advisory for Missouri over the summer.

“[SB 43] legalized individual discrimination,” Chapel said. “[It] said you can’t sue the person that did it. They can’t be held accountable.”

Attendees asked about the possibility of a petition on SB 43, which Chapel said has been considered in addition to lawsuits and other possible measures to take against the bill.

“The amount of money that it takes to be able to wage that campaign is huge,” Chapel said. “I wish that we had that kind of support. I’m not saying we can’t get it — it just doesn’t exist right now.”

Dr. Cheryl Avant, public health advocate for the NAACP of Jefferson City, attended the panel to listen and ensure her rights are acknowledged and advocated for.

“To make sure our civil liberties are not being overlooked, especially when it comes to employment, discrimination and healthcare, that’s why I think most of the people here attended tonight, to make sure our civil liberties are not being overlooked,” Avant said.

Although Chapel is uncertain about the possibility of a petition to counter SB 43 in the near future, Avant remains hopeful the bill will be abolished.

Don Love, chair of the Empower Missouri Human Rights Task Force, discussed his work toward bias-free policing, advocating for the Fourth Amendment Affirmation Act. This legislation change would require a police officer to identify any areas of disproportion during traffic stops and explain “how such disproportions could be accounted for by alternative legitimate factors” other than bias or discrimination, which they would include in the routine reports they submit. Then, he said agencies could take a sample of stops and scan for patterns of discrimination in police stops.

“You really need some sort of objective information about where people are being mistreated,” Love said. “And the data is basically the only thing we have to do this.”

Mark Horvit, professor at the MU School of Journalism, said there are at least 20 bills on the table this year that focus on abortion. Last year, Missouri passed Senate Bill 5, which added a new set of restrictions on abortion access in the state, including annual facility inspections and a set of mandatory information and risks that providers must discuss, in addition to the existing 72-hour wait period required between the initial visit and procedure.

Sean Whiting of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Missouri wants to focus on pushing legislation in the session that would counter Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws, which are seemingly small regulations on women’s health centers that legislators change repeatedly, he said, with the end goal of pushing them out of business.

Whiting referenced Senate Bill 724, which would restrict access to abortion if it is known that the woman is seeking an abortion based on the race or sex of the fetus, or the possibility of the fetus having Down syndrome.

“This a preeminent civil rights issue,” Whiting said. “It’s an issue that affects literally tens of thousands of Missourians every year.”

Horvit advised the community members in attendance concerned about their civil liberties to focus their attention on bills that attempt to make it easier for businesses to function by limiting their liabilities. He thinks those bills are more likely to pass in session and can have, in a roundabout way, the same kind of impact on civil liberties as direct civil liberty bills.

“It’s entirely likely that — like SB 43 — a lot of the bills that end up having the most impact on civil liberties and those kinds of issues aren’t actually civil liberties bills at all, but are business bills,” Horvit said. “It might not be the traditional way you’re used to looking to see the kinds of bills that are proposed … but if some of you see threats in these bills, you might look at some of those bills; the bills that are looking at lawsuit reform and bills that are looking to make it easier for businesses to operate.”

Edited by Skyler Rossi | srossi@themaneater.com

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