Right to protest?: GOP state lawmakers push back against public dissent
The legislative tools, many of which have been introduced in recent months, would regulate public dissent as demonstrators take to the streets.
In Indiana, Senate lawmakers introduced a bill in January that would require public officials to immediately dispatch “all available law enforcement” to clear a traffic blockade involving at least 10 people “by any means necessary.” Opponents, such as the Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice, have dubbed it the “block traffic and you die” bill.
Senator Jim Tomes, who introduced bill SB285, said the bill’s purpose was very simple, to restrict permit-less protest, especially those that block roads and highways.
“We need to keep our streets and interstates open to commerce, traffic, motorists and emergency personnel,” Tomes told WRTV. “Anyone who wants to stage or participate in a protest or demonstration is free to do so. But they will need to do what other organizations do for an event or demonstration: apply for a permit with the local government. With this information, first responders will know what roads are going to be blocked and what roads they can take when responding to an emergency.”
Groups opposing the legislation say it is a naked attempt to curb free speech rights. The bill "doesn't make sense," Sue Ellen Braunlin, co-president of the Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice, told the Guardian. "We have stopped traffic for a short time during protests, with police cooperation. Often they will let us stop traffic and we have not had a problem. We’ve had a women’s rights march and a Black Lives Matter march and it was all very peaceful and coordinated with the police," Braunlin said.
In North Dakota, site of the Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline, bills were introduced by Republican lawmakers in January that would criminalize road protests, restrict what protesters can wear, and even allow the federal government to sue to cover enforcement costs.
Among the more controversial proposals, one measure would exempt drivers from liability if they unintentionally injure or kill a pedestrian obstructing traffic on a public road or highway.
State Republicans said they were motivated by residents’ frustration with the ongoing protests in the southern part of the state which at times saw a thousand-strong encampment opposing the construction of the $3.8 billion four-state pipeline.
“When people are having their lives disrupted, you’re going to see things move up here,” Senator Kelly Armstrong, an oil company executive and the state Republican chair, told AP. “It’s very difficult to write ‘protest laws.’ We need to make sure there is reasonable application of the law in all circumstances, whether protest-related or not.”
In Minnesota, new legislation seeks to increase penalties for blocking traffic, likely a response to a mass protest on a St. Paul interstate in July following the police killing of Philando Castille. Washington state legislators will consider draft legislation to classify as "economic terrorism" any permit-less protest that causes harm to the flow of commerce.
While in Michigan's legislature, an anti-picketing bill would boost penalties against those, particularly unions, who attempt to harm a business's profits.
Landmark civil rights "legislation didn’t pass because we had polite protesters," said state Represenative Leslie Love, a Democrat from Detroit, in opposition to the Michigan bill. "We did it on buses and bridges and lunch counters. And those protesters were attacked by dogs, water hosed down."
"I’m deeply appalled by these bills because I grew up in a union household and my mother took me to pickets and it was always a safe environment," she added.
Many of the bills were drafted before President Donald Trump was elected president, and were in response to pipeline protests in North Dakota and the effective nationwide protests organized by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Trump joined the chorus of criticism of protests after students at New York University and University of California Berkeley protested the appearance of two right-wing commentators at talks invited by College Republicans.
Next week, North Carolina Senator Dan Bishop plans to introduce a bill that will call for imprisoning people who intimidate ex-officials, after former Governor Pat McCrory was pursed down a Washington, DC alley by a group chanting “Shame!”
McCrory cost the state millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs due to boycotts over the anti-LGBTQ law he signed while in office. Under the law, non-discrimination ordinances were nullified across the state, forced transgender people to use the bathrooms and locker rooms matching the gender on their certificate in government-owned buildings, capped the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour, and took away the right to sue in state court for discrimination.
The right to sue was later reinstated by executive order but the rest of law remained in effect. The video, tagged as being at the Capitol Hilton, accompanied by conservative pundit Lou Dobbs, showed the former governor doing his best to avoid a group of people shouting, “Shame!” and calling him an anti-gay bigot.
In Missouri a bill would prohibit demonstrators committing illegal acts from wearing masks or robes, In Iowa, lawmakers introduced a penalty of five years in prison for traffic disruptions.
All the bills are awaiting committee hearings or other legislative hurdles.
Civil rights advocates have argued that all the bills infringe on the constitutional right to protest under the First Amendment.
“I’ve been monitoring free speech legislation for about a dozen years now, and I’ve never seen anti-protest legislation in the states anywhere near as large as we’re seeing this year,” Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union told Bloomberg News.
It’s no coincidence that the bills are being introduced as record numbers of people protest, she said.