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Why New York officials want to bring back anti-mask law for protesters

Some New York leaders calling for a face mask ban for protesters
Some New York leaders calling for a face mask ban for protesters 02:26

NEW YORK -- The recent rise in antisemitic attacks by protesters wearing masks has some New York officials calling to reinstate a ban on face coverings at demonstrations.

It is a move that horrifies civil rights groups, but Gov. Kathy Hochul, Mayor Eric Adams, state lawmakers and even some City Council members are so shocked by the actions of some anti-Israel protesters, they think it's time to once again make it illegal for protesters to hide their faces.

Lawmakers inspired to act following shocking demonstrations and vandalism   

Recent incidents officials are concerned about include an ugly Wall Street protest outside an exhibit memorializing the victims killed by Hamas at the Nova concert on Oct. 7 and stunning acts of vandalism at the homes of Brooklyn Museum officials, which included spray-painted red triangles -- the symbol Hamas uses to denote targets marked for death.

Hochul explained why she is now seeking to revive a law preventing protesters from wearing masks.

"We will not tolerate individuals wearing masks to evade responsibility for criminal or threatening behavior," Hochul said. "These abhorrent acts of antisemitism have absolutely no place in America, but particularly not in the state of New York." 

The law had been around since the 19th century, but as Assemblyman Charles Lavine, chair of the Judiciary Committee, explains, it was repealed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Sadly, we have seen a resurgence of Jew hatred in the United States and in the world," Lavine said.

Hochul has plenty of support

The governor is not the only one who wants something done. Sources told CBS New York that Adams is reaching out to public officials to build support for an anti-mask law.

"Cowards hide their faces. There's no room for hate against any group in this city," Adams said Thursday evening. "I agree with those who are calling for removal of the masks, not only for the protesters who're using vile language, but also criminal behavior."

Lavine said there is already a bill that would make it illegal to wear a mask to conceal one's identity.

"We have to do something. Our obligation is to protect all of our citizens, no matter what their ethnicity or their religion," Lavine said.

"Ban? Yes, ban. Absolutely. Do it. Do it. What are we wasting time here for? You know they're doing whatever they want to do and we're sitting here, you know, playing games. There's nothing to play games about. Slam the gavel down. Say this is how it's going to be," Councilwoman Vickie Paladino said.

The big question is how fast officials can move. The Legislature adjourned for the year last week, so the governor would have to call lawmakers back to Albany for a special session.  

Civil libertarians opposed to revival of anti-mask law

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, came out against the proposal on Thursday.

"The governor's concerns about masks disguising criminal activity won't be quelled by banning anonymous peaceful protest. Mask bans were originally developed to squash political protests and, like other laws that criminalize people, they will be selectively enforced," Lieberman said.

Lavine, however, said wearing a mask while engaging in demonstrations is not protected.

"There is a right to free speech. There is a right to protest. There is no constitutional right to hide one's identity while engaging in any sort of protest," Lavine said.

Legal experts say the law has stood up to challenges before and will likely have some updates.

"Most likely, the law will distinguish between a surgical mask where someone is trying to protect their health versus a mask that's made to protect one's identity in committing a criminal act," attorney David Schwartz said.

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