A bit of silver lining at the onset of the Trump administration has been the groundswell of activism by hundreds of thousands of Americans taking to the streets to face off against a president, and a Republican establishment, they see as reckless, divisive and destructive.
But Republican lawmakers have been so alarmed by the size and intensity of the demonstrations — for women’s rights, immigrants and the environment — and by protests around the country before the election, that they have introduced measures in at least 10 states to intimidate free speech by criminalizing it.
While their proponents say the bills and initiatives are needed to protect public safety and ensure civility, these efforts would crush the right of free protest at a time when key American principles and institutions are under attack.
In North Dakota, where activists have fought the construction of an oil pipeline that threatens to pollute a neighboring Indian reservation’s drinking water as well as deface sacred lands, lawmakers have proposed punishing protesters who demonstrate on private property with up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine. Another state measure would make wearing a mask in a public setting a crime punishable by up to a year in prison.
A bill in Colorado seeks to intimidate environmental activists who oppose an expansion of oil and gas drilling in the state by making it a felony, punishable by up to 18 months in prison, to “interfere with the action of any equipment used” for oil and gas extraction and distribution. In Indiana and Iowa, lawmakers have proposed stiff punishments for demonstrators who block roadways. One lawmaker in North Carolina recently sought to make heckling elected officials a crime.
Lee Rowland, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who specializes in free speech issues, called these measures “an absolute travesty.”
“In my dozen years of monitoring state legislation, I’ve certainly not seen a wave of anti-protest bills this large,” Ms. Rowland said.
None of these bills appear to have enough support to pass and, if enacted, most would face strong constitutional challenges on First Amendment grounds. Similar forms of government overreach in Southern states during the civil rights movement led to landmark free speech rulings.
Instead of seeking to penalize their critics, lawmakers have a duty to listen to them, perhaps make an earnest effort to find common ground, and address the root causes of the grievances that have so angered and mobilized Americans.
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