Republicans in eight states have proposed bills that would criminalize peaceful protesting — a right that is guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Initially, legislation was proposed in five states: Iowa, Michigan, Washington State, Minnesota and North Dakota. The bill in North Dakota says motorists can freely run over protesters as long as it is done “unintentionally.” Laws have since been proposed in Indiana, Colorado and Virginia.
Protests have taken place all across the country in response to the election of President Donald Trump, particularly Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington, a grassroots women-led movement that rallied protesters of all genders and backgrounds in Washington, D.C., as well as inspired sister marches across the globe.
The First Amendment “guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government.”
The North Dakota bill, sponsored by Rep. Keith Kempenich (R-Bowman), comes in response to the protests that have taken place at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in response to construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the StarTribune reported. According to HB 1203, “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.”
“If you stay off the roadway, this would never be an issue,” Kempenich said of the bill. “Those motorists are going about the lawful, legal exercise of their right to drive down the road.”
Protesters of the pipeline had pledged to remain at the camp sites as long as they had to, fearing that any progress they made would be rolled back following Trump’s inauguration. But on Saturday, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reported on its Facebook page that it had formally asked protesters to clear the camp sites.
Some people will likely continue to protest despite the request, one activist reported to Reuters.
“Some will [leave]. Others won’t. It’s pretty inevitable,” said Olive Bias, who has been at the site of the protest since September.
A known Trump supporter in the Senate is working on a bill that refers to certain protests as “economic terrorism” and crimes that should be felonies. Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen previously worked as Trump’s deputy campaign director. While he insisted that he had been working on the legislation for a long time and it was not in response to anti-Trump protests, the bill would apply to some of those as well.
“I completely support your First Amendment right to protest,” he said. “You do not have the First Amendment right to block a train.”
The state already has laws in place that allow law enforcement to remove protesters blocking street or railway traffic.
Democratic State Rep. Laurie Jinkins said that “there is nothing more un-American than this kind of proposal.”
“There is nothing more fundamental to our democracy than the right to protest things you think are wrong,” Jinkins said.
Doug Honig, a spokesman for the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “The statement throws out a lot of broad rhetoric, and we’ll need to see an actual bill,” he said. “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,’” he added.
A Minnesota bill introduced by Republican State Rep. Kathy Lohmer would change the punishment for highway protesting from a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail to $3,000 in fines and up to a year in jail.
Minnesota saw a slew of protests last summer following the death of Philando Castile, who was shot by a police officer when he was reaching for his identification after being pulled over. Castile’s girlfriend livestreamed the events immediately following the shooting. The video went viral and sparked outrage and protests in the state and across the country.
Lohmer said she hopes the bill will “discourage and dissuade folks from using the freeway,” saying, “There’s plenty of places to get your message out.”
But Democratic Rep. Rena Moran said that rather than toughening penalties, lawmakers should take this as an opportunity to understand the protesters’ message in the first place.
“They have not had one conversation with those people, who are feeling the injustice. If they did, I don’t think this would be their first priority,” she said. “This may be a wake-up call that elections matter, that your voice matters, that your voice is your vote.”
In response to protests against Trump, Republican Sen. Jake Chapman sponsored SF 111, which makes it a class “D” felony to block traffic while protesting. The crime is punishable by a maximum of two years in prison and up to $6,250 in fines.
In November, over 100 protesters shut down I-80 during a “Not My America” protest. Interim Iowa City Police Chief Bill Campbell reported no arrests or known injuries.
Chapman said the bill came up out of “concern” for the protesters. But Democratic Sen. Joe Bolkcom pointed out that the state already has laws pertaining to obstructing traffic and questioned if the legislation is specifically in response to the protests being against Trump.
“So I hope this bill doesn’t go forward. The last thing we need is more penalties on the books,” he said.
Republican Rep. Bobby Kaufmann is drafting his own version of the bill that he hopes will satisfy both parties and will specifically address protests that block highway traffic.
“I want to target those that organize the shutdowns to hopefully diffuse them from happening in the future,” he said. “I don’t want an 18-year-old kid to have a felony on their record. I think that most people wouldn’t participate in these things if there wasn’t someone at the head of it organizing it.”
Legislation in Indiana also leaves protesters in potential danger. SB 285, authored by State Sen. Jim Tomes (R), pertains to protests causing “a mass traffic obstruction.” According to the bill, after learning of the “obstruction,” officials have 15 minutes to “dispatch all available law enforcement officers … with directions to use any means necessary to clear the roads of the persons unlawfully obstructing vehicular traffic.”
“I don’t care if the folks want to be 10 deep on the sidewalks, I want the streets opened up,” Tomes said. When asked to recall an example of a time when a protest interfered with an emergency responder going to a scene, he reportedly did not have an answer.
Action on the bill has not yet been taken. The phrase “any means necessary” raised eyebrows of state officials. The chairman of the committee said the bill will likely not pass without revisions.
Colorado’s bill pertains specifically to environmental protesters, who may grow larger in numbers following Trump’s inauguration. SB17-035, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg (R), changes the penalty for tampering with oil and gas equipment from a misdemeanor to a class 6 felony. The new penalty can mean 18 months in prison and a $100,000 fine, The Intercept reported.
Almost immediately after Trump’s swearing-in, the White House website removed all mention of climate change, now calling the Climate Action Plan “unnecessary” in a section called “An America First Energy Plan.” And Scott Pruitt, nominee for secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency, has previously denied climate change. He flip-flopped on this belief during his confirmation hearing when grilled by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
In December, the Michigan House voted in favor of a bill that severely restricts workers and union members from picketing. HB 4643 allows employers to seek an injunction to halt their employees from protesting. Those who continue protesting could be fined $1,000 per day, and unions could be fined $10,000 per day.
Republicans said the current laws are not sufficient, but Democrats largely disagreed. State Rep. Leslie Love (D-Detroit) brought up civil rights protests that were necessary to make progressive change.
“That landmark legislation didn’t pass because we had polite protesters. We did it on buses and bridges and lunch counters. And those protesters were attacked by dogs, water hosed down,” she said. “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.”
The bill awaits confirmation from the Senate.
In Virginia, SB 1055, which on Monday was rejected, would have amended existing legislation referring to protesters “remaining at place of riot or unlawful assembly after warning to disperse.” The existing bill states that these protesters “shall be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor.” The bill proposed by Sen. Richard Stuart (R) changes this to “is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor” — reportedly punishable by one year in prison and a $2,500 fine.
Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke) called the bill “one of the worst” he has seen.
“This is contrary to what we believe in as Americans, what we believe in as Virginians. I think Thomas Jefferson would roll over in his grave if he thought we were considering something like this,” he said.