By Claire Bernish
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
President Donald Trump’s first week in office has seen a tumultuous mix of sweeping executive actions peppered with a few pleasant surprises; but if one thing proves true — as with the first term of any new president — there will be cause for someone to protest something.
Indeed, before Trump even took the oath of office, protesters descended on Washington, D.C. — marching en masse down the middle of typically congested roadways, chanting, screaming, and generally causing the sort of disruptions demonstrators seek in order to draw attention to a cause.
But that most basic right — to air one’s grievances to elected leaders in a public forum, often through disruption — might soon be a risky endeavor in at least ten states, as protest is gradually being criminalized in rather astonishing ways.
Lawmakers from North Dakota and Minnesota, to Virginia and the state of Washington, have proposed or passed legislation levying hefty penalties against anyone who dares to exercise the basic right to protest against — ironically enough — legislation and policy found to be untenable.
At the rate such laws have rapidly come to fruition, even if legislators in your state have yet to propose obstacles to protesting, the following list should serve as a guide for potential future strictures regarding your right to speak out.
1. NORTH DAKOTA
North Dakota lawmakers have proposed arguably the most crushing measures against protesters — seemingly specifically targeting water protectors opposing construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a driver of a motor vehicle who unintentionally causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway, is not guilty of an offense.”
In other words, if a protester in a roadway were to be struck by a vehicle and killed, the driver would not be charged with a crime if they claimed, for example, accidentally hitting the accelerator instead of the brakes.
House Majority Leader Al Carlson proffered a second bill criminalizing wearing masks to protests; and, though the legislation would allow exceptions for harsh weather conditions and holidays wear face coverings are traditional, it’s an open question how police might interpret those exemptions.
“I would be the first to defend your right of free speech and freedom of assembly,” Carlson told a state legislative committee hearing on Tuesday of House Bill 1304, according to the Billings Gazette. “I’m always concerned when there’s a reason that, I believe, may be used to hide your identity when you’re creating some kind of disturbance.”
Should the legislation pass, masks would not be permitted at demonstrations on public property or roadways — nor on private property, unless the owner gives explicit, written consent.
Missouri legislators are also hoping to criminalize mask-wearing at protests in a bill that would make intentional concealment of one’s “identity by the means of a robe, mask, or other disguise” at any gathering deemed an “unlawful assembly” punishable as a Class A misdemeanor — with a penalty of up to one full year behind bars.
As alarming as it might be that a mask could land you in jail in Missouri or that North Dakota drivers can run down protesters without facing charges, Minnesota lawmakers took the criminalization of demonstrations in an equally shocking but wholly different direction — the wallet.
Minnesotans whose protests force police to intervene would be financially liable for the cost of the intervention should Rep. Nick Zerwas’ legislation by written into law.
As the Star Tribune reports, a committee meeting on Tuesday “ended abruptly after a House panel passed Zerwas’ proposed legislation that would give cities authority to charge protesters for police services if the demonstrators are convicted of illegal assembly or public nuisance. The measure would also give cities the option of suing convicted protesters to recoup expenses from policing the demonstration.”
Furious residents disrupted that meeting, rightly questioning the measure’s constitutionality and what the bill would mean for future ability to demonstrate against acts of police violence, as in the shooting death of Philando Castile in 2016 — or in any instance where complaint falls on deaf ears and public assembly stands as the only option.
Zerwas and the bill’s supporters, however, side with Minnesotans who resent large demonstrations, and say the financial onus of policing protests should fall on those participating.
“I have an entire constituency that feels as though protesters believe that their rights are more important than everyone else’s,” Zerwas explained in an interview cited by the Guardian. “Well, there is a cost to that. Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus. She didn’t get out and lay down in front of the bus.”
He added, “The meters are running and the taxpayers are holding the bag.”
And as the Intercept reports, “In addition to the highway-protesting bill, Minnesota lawmakers also proposed a separate piece of legislation that greatly increases penalties for nonviolent cases involving ‘obstructing the legal process.’ Under the bill’s language, nonviolent obstruction of authorities would carry ‘imprisonment of not less than 12 months’ and a fine of up to $10,000.”
Where North Dakota legislators want to permit, in essence, vehicular homicide to curb the blockage of roadways, and Minnesota lawmakers seek to make such protests too costly, politicians in Iowa would rather throw demonstrators who block highways in jail for five years.
Senator Jake Chapman proposed Senate File 111 in response to an incident in November in which some 100 protesters blocked Interstate Highway 80 and brought eastbound traffic to a standstill for around 30 minutes — much to the consternation of drivers caught in the unexpected jam.
“Look, we have the right to protest. No one disputes that,” the lawmaker explained in defense of his controversial bill, which, incidentally, isn’t without opposition. “We encourage that. But there is an appropriate time and an appropriate place to do so. Interstates are not one of those places. That is what this bill does. It aims to stop that.”
As COO of Midwest Ambulance Service, Chapman claims to be concerned such spontaneous highway blockages obstruct access for emergency services, as well as free commerce and travel.
If passed, Chapman’s law “would apply to people blocking the travel portion of Iowa highways with speeds posted at 55 mph or higher. Violators could be charged with a Class D felony, which includes a sentence of prison time and a fine of at least $750 and up to $7,500,” the Des Moines Register reports.
In line with aforementioned proposals, Indiana State Senator Jim Tomes introduced the “Block Traffic and You Die” bill — or, at least, that’s how opponents are characterizing the Hoosier State’s anti-protest legislation.
Senate Bill 285 would require public officials to dispatch all available law enforcement to clear roadways — using “any means necessary” — if at least 10 protesters have attempted to obstruct traffic without first obtaining a permit.
Although indeed vague, it is the ‘any means necessary’ portion of Tomes’ proposed law that worries activists who have traditionally worked with police. Often officers will escort marchers in roadways, blocking cross traffic for them to pass, ensuring both protesters and drivers remain safe. Thus, opponents of the legislation find it frivolous and curiously worded — and far too open to interpretation.
And there are still more proposed laws restricting the constitutional right to protest.
“In Colorado,” the Intercept reports, “Republican state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg has introduced a bill that would greatly increase penalties for environmental protesters. Under the proposed law, obstructing or tampering with oil and gas equipment would be reclassified from a misdemeanor to a ‘class 6’ felony, a category of crime that reportedly can be punished by up to 18 months behind bars and a fine of up to $100,000.”
Washington State Senator Doug Ericksen proposed creating a new crime to facilitate charging protesters with a felonies for blocking roads and other assorted activities — he hopes to deem them “economic terrorists.”
Ericksen seeks to allow felony prosecution “of those who intentionally break the law in an attempt to intimidate or coerce private citizens or the government by obstructing economic activity.” However, the broad brush language in his proposed legislation deeply concerns civil and constitutional rights advocates, like Doug Honig of the Washington ACLU, who noted in a statement quoted by Q13 FOX,
“The statement throws out a lot of broad rhetoric, and we’ll need to see an actual bill. But we’re already concerned that some of its loose terms appear to be targeting civil disobedience as ‘terrorism.’ That’s the kind of excessive approach to peaceful protest that our country and state do not need.
“Let’s keep in mind that civil rights protesters who sat down at lunch counters could be seen as ‘disrupting business’ and ‘obstructing economic activity,’ and their courageous actions were opposed by segregationists as trying to ‘coerce business and government.’”
Lawmakers in two states have taken a more unusual route to combat protests.
8. NORTH CAROLINA
North Carolina Senator Dan Bishop wants to provide controversial Governor Pat McCrory — and incidentally any politician — an official safe space away from hecklers who might approach to, well, scream unpleasant words.
Bishop, reports the News & Observer, decided verbal criticism of politicians was worthy of legal protection after witnessing McCrory being followed and yelled at over inaugural weekend in Washington, D.C. Should the proposed legislation pass, it would thus be “a crime to threaten, intimidate, or retaliate against a present or former North Carolina official in the course of, or on account of, the performance of his or her duties.”
Rather than worrying about political or environmental protesters, Michigan lawmakers turned their attention to union workers with two proposed pieces of legislation aimed to sharply curtail the right to picket for grievances such as pay or safety conditions.
“One bill would increase fines against picketers to $1,000 per person per day of a picket and $10,000 per day for an organization or union involved in the picket that is deemed to be an illegal mass picket,” the Detroit Free Press reported last month.
“The other would repeal a law that requires employers to include information about an ongoing strike when they advertise to hire employees who will replace existing, but striking employees at a company.”
Only in Virginia did a lone lawmaker stand in opposition to their party’s proposed legislative crackdown on protest, as the Daily Press reports,
“Senate Bill 1055 would have increased penalties for failing to disperse when police declare an unlawful assembly, upping a misdemeanor that brings only a fine now to one with potential jail time. It was one of four bills on protest punishments filed this session by state Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Montross, and the last of the four to die.”
* * *
All told, this collection of anti-protest legislation constitutes an overarching attempt to quash the right of the people to demonstrate when the government errs against them — and the result will only increase near unbearable police state conditions already choking out First Amendment protections in the United States.
With division at unprecedented levels over politics, police violence, and, really, any nameable issue, such extraneous laws can only be attempting one thing.
As Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, warned in a statement to the Intercept,
“This trend of anti-protest legislation dressed up as ‘obstruction’ bills is deeply troubling. A law that would allow the state to charge a protester $10,000 for stepping in the wrong place, or encourage a driver to get away with manslaughter because the victim was protesting, is about one thing: chilling protest.”
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