State legislators take steps to criminalize protests

State legislators take steps to criminalize protests
© Greg Nash

Republican state legislators across the country are advancing bills that would criminalize or penalize some public protests just a month after millions of Americans took to the streets in opposition to President Trump.

In North Dakota, where protesters occupied land around an unfinished section of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, Gov. Doug Burgum (R) on Thursday signed four laws that would stiffen penalties against protests. The measures increase sanctions for offenses related to riots and broaden the definition of trespassing, allowing law enforcement officers to issue citations and fines.

The new laws, passed under emergency provisions that allow them to take effect immediately, came just hours after a protest camp near the pipeline was evacuated.

Senators in neighboring South Dakota on Thursday passed a bill that would allow the governor to create a "safety zone" in emergency situations. Anyone who entered the zone would be fined.

Legislators who backed the measure specifically cited the Dakota Access project and possible protests against the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which will run through South Dakota. Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R), who sponsored the legislation, said it was needed to deter “professional agitators.”

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“Certainly, the Keystone XL pipeline would be a likely prompt to these types of demonstrations,” Daugaard told reporters at a press conference last week. 

Native American tribes objected to the legislation, which they say improperly targets them.

Minnesota lawmakers say cracking down on protesters who block access to highways is among their top priorities this legislative session. On Wednesday, two legislative committees voted to increase penalties for protests that block access and to make protesters liable for costs incurred by police responding to their demonstrations.

The Minnesota legislation follows protests against the shooting deaths of several black men by police. Those protests blocked roads leading to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Legislators in Indiana and Iowa have also considered bills to criminalize blocking streets during protests.

Arizona Republicans have introduced a measure to expand racketeering laws, which target organized crime groups, to include rioting. The bill would allow police officers to arrest and the seize the assets of those who organize protest events.

Civil libertarians say the measures are unconstitutional overreactions to a historic era of protests.

“Robust protest activity is a sign of the health of our republic. Our democracy is literally designed for citizens to get out in the streets and make their voices heard to their legislators,” said Lee Rowland, a senior attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. 

“To see legislators in these states make it a priority not to listen to the voices of their constituents, but to silence them, is deeply troubling and fundamentally un-American.” 

One measure in Tennessee goes so far as to give civil immunity to a driver who hits a protester blocking traffic.  

The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Matthew Hill (R), comes after a car hit volunteers helping protesters cross a street in Nashville as they demonstrated against the Trump administration’s orders blocking immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Hill’s measure passed its first test in a state Senate committee earlier his month. Hill did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

A similar bill failed in the North Dakota legislature earlier this month. 

Republican-led legislatures in Michigan and Virginia have already rejected their own measures increasing penalties on protests. 

Rowland, who has been following state legislatures for about a dozen years, said the measures represent a “fairly unprecedented level” of action against protestors. The wave of bills come after high-profile protests including the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, and the Women's March on Washington, which took place the day after Trump’s inauguration. 

The women’s march drew more than 3 million participants in cities across the nation. It attracted more people to Washington’s subway system than Trump’s inauguration, the city's transit authority reported.