Republicans in statehouses across the U.S. are devising legal tools to regulate public dissent as demonstrators take to the streets to protest President Donald Trump in waves not seen since the Vietnam War.
At least 10 bills to limit protests have been introduced in recent months. North Dakota is considering protection for motorists who unintentionally kill protesters blocking roads. Washington state Senator Doug Ericksen would punish those who “disrupt our economy.” Next week, North Carolina Senator Dan Bishop will call for imprisoning people who intimidate ex-officials, after former Governor Pat McCrory was pursued down a Washington, D.C., alley by a group chanting “Shame!”
“That extends over the borderline of decency,” Bishop said in an interview. Though such demonstrators are “constitutionally entitled” to express their views, he said, they aren’t free to threaten violence.
Many of the bills, which critics say impinge on constitutional freedoms, were filed before Trump’s election in response to Black Lives Matter and oil-pipeline protests. They’ve gained fresh relevance amid global women’s marches and nationwide airport demonstrations over Trump’s immigration ban. On Wednesday night, black-clad protesters set fires and smashed glass at the University of California at Berkeley, forcing the cancellation of a speech by a conservative writer.
Trump has expressed disgust with the displays, saying Thursday in a Twitter message that he might cut federal funds to Berkeley.
“Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Trump wrote on Twitter on Friday.
At the state level, bills have been proposed in Missouri to prohibit demonstrators committing illegal acts from wearing masks or robes; in Iowa, to levy five years in prison for traffic disruptions; in Washington, to punish protesters who interfere with commerce; and in Minnesota, to keep roads clear and allow governments to sue violators for costs. All are awaiting committee hearings or other legislative hurdles.
“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,” said Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. It’s no coincidence that the bills are being introduced as record numbers of people protest, she said.
In Michigan, Representative Gary Glenn said he will reintroduce a bill to increase penalties for pickets who interfere with business or the enjoyment of one’s home. The legislation, driven by demonstrations at the residence of an attorney general and $15-an-hour pay demands at fast-food restaurants, died in December.
“A bill like this is all the more needed in the current environment,” Glenn said in an interview.
In recent years, opponents of financial injustice, police brutality and pipeline projects such as the Keystone XL have rekindled mass demonstrations — some with violent elements at their fringes — at a scale unseen since the Vietnam War. Unrest after police shootings cost Ferguson, Missouri, at least $5 million, and Baltimore at least $20 million, according to state and city officials.
In the two weeks since Trump was sworn in, protests worldwide have challenged the legitimacy of a president who won without a majority of the popular vote and who has moved to bar refugees from predominantly Muslim nations.
Legislative sponsors say the goal of their bills is to ensure public safety, not to squelch unpopular opinion.
“Imagine 100 people standing on a freeway, blocking the road and refusing to let you through because they’re upset about the results of a court case or the decisions made by voters during an election,” Minnesota Representative Kathy Lohmer wrote in a Jan. 27 post on the legislature’s website.
In July, traffic on Interstate 94 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, was blocked for about five hours by 300 demonstrators protesting the fatal shooting of Philando Castile by police. Lohmer is sponsoring a bill to triple the $1,000 fine for such activity and allow for as much as a year of jail time.
The bill, pending in a transportation committee, hasn’t been scheduled for a vote. Lohmer didn’t return a phone message left at her office.
Another proposal, by Minnesota state Representative Nick Zerwas, would allow government agencies to sue those convicted of unlawful assembly or obstructing traffic.
“If you want to move your agenda and you think the best way to do that is by linking arm to arm and marching down a freeway entrance ramp, then I think you ought to go to jail,” Zerwas said during a committee hearing. “You should be convicted, and when you get out, you should get the bill.”
Critics have said the bills target Black Lives Matter activists. But laws aimed at a specific group won’t survive a constitutional challenge, said Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor. The North Dakota bill that would protect motorists who strike protesters has an inherent flaw, he said.
“You can’t have a more mild penalty for running over someone who’s engaged in speech than you have for someone who is not,” Stone said.
Bishop, the North Carolina senator, said his proposal expands a criminal statute that punishes people who threaten or assault elected officials. He said he’s modeling his legislation after a Washington law that can result in a prison term for those who threaten, intimidate or retaliate against current or former officials as a result of their duties.
It’s a response, he said, to public protest that’s gone from peaceful picketing and marching to “something that edges toward potential violence.”
McCrory, 60, in November became the first North Carolina governor to lose re-election. Eight months earlier, he had enacted the “bathroom bill,” legislation co-sponsored by Bishop to place restrictions on transgender people, leading businesses and tourists to boycott the state. On Jan. 20, the day of Trump’s inauguration, McCrory was confronted on a sidewalk in Washington as he stood alongside television host Lou Dobbs and others.
A 3-minute, 30-second
video posted to social media shows the group chanting “Shame on you!” and calling him a bigot as McCrory and his companions turn and head down an alley to a set of locked doors, where the hecklers stayed until uniformed police arrived. They peacefully dispersed.
Bishop said he’ll introduce the legislation next week, and said he ran it by McCrory and heard no objection. He said McCrory was discomfited by his encounter even after years of demonstrations in Raleigh, the state capital, against Republican policies.
“He thought it was a bit unsettling,” Bishop said of the confrontation. “But he faced stuff like that since the moment he stepped into the governor’s office.”