Cracking Down on Protesters – Is our Democracy in Danger?

Cracking Down on Protesters – Is our Democracy in Danger?

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It should come as no surprise in our current political climate, that Republican lawmakers across the country have introduced (and in some cases passed) legislation aimed at stifling political protest.

While this is certainly not the first such movement in American history, it is the most aggressive attempt since the civil rights era.

Our History of Regulating Protest

Throughout the 20th-century, laws were drafted to decrease the impact of labor union organizers. Laws restricting and regulating protest were part of that effort.

Similarly, the civil rights movement in the 1960s was met with legislative efforts attempting to repress protest and protesters.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees citizens the right “peaceably to assemble” and the right of free speech. As with all rights, the meaning of these mandates requires interpretation. It is left to the Court to clarify the meaning and scope of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

The Courts have usually given the government a broad brush for regulating protest. State and local governments are permitted to regulate the time, place and manner of demonstration. Officials are authorized to ban certain items from the demonstrations that may be used to cause harm. Of course, laws are permitted that punish otherwise criminal action, even in the context of protest. For example, an assault during a protest is still an assault and may be punished under existing laws that ban assault.

New Wave of Repression

Since President Trump’s election, 20 states have drafted or enacted bills aimed at restricting protests and punishing protesters.

In Arizona, lawmakers passed a bill that changes and expands the definition of rioting and allows the crime to be prosecuted under racketeering laws. These racketeering laws are the same laws used to prosecute organized crime.

This legislation was proposed in response to President Trump’s false claim that “paid protesters” were causing trouble for money. Steve Kilar of the ACLU of Arizona told the Daily Beast,

“There is this belief that people wouldn’t be out protesting unless someone did provide an incentive to do it. So, the Arizona legislature in their great wisdom has decided there needs to be a way to go after these fictitious funders of protests.”

Under the racketeering laws, prosecutors may seize the assets of suspected “rioters.” It is important to note that the definition of rioters has been dramatically broadened.

  • In Florida, a law exempts drivers from liability if they hit a protester.
  • A law in Mississippi makes obstructing traffic a felony punishable by 5 years in prison.
  • In Indiana police are permitted to shut down protests “by any means necessary.”
  • In Minnesota, protesters can be charged the cost of policing protests.
  • An Oklahoma law that targets environmental organizations who “conspire” with protesters increases penalties for trespass on certain infrastructure such as pipelines.

A Startling Trend

In addition to these new laws targeting protesters, journalists have also faced legal action.  On May 9th West Virginia reporter Dan Heyman attempted to ask Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price questions about the Republican health care bill. Heyman was arrested for “willful disruption of state government processes.” His crime was pressing Price for answers.

At least six journalists were arrested and charged with felony rioting for covering protests that became violent during President Trump’s inauguration parade. They were arrested for doing their job.