Bills targeting protests in U.S. states fuel free speech fears

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By Timothy Mclaughlin

<span class="articleLocation”>Republican lawmakers in several central U.S.
states are pushing bills that would crack down on
demonstrations, drawing criticism from free speech campaigners
and underlining the polarization over protests in the era of
President Donald Trump.

Bills have been introduced over the past month in states
including North Dakota, Indiana and Iowa that would impose
measures such as harsher penalties for demonstrators who disrupt
traffic, and scrapping punishment for drivers who
unintentionally strike protesters blocking their vehicles.

The push for stricter laws comes as opponents of Trump have
vowed to take to the streets to demonstrate against his policies
on issues ranging from immigration to abortion and climate
change. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in women’s
marches on Jan. 21 in cities across the country.

While the fate of the bills was not immediately clear,
supporters say they sum up the frustration some people feel
about protests that get in the way of their daily lives.

“People are just kind of sick and tired of this garbage,”
Nick Zerwas, a Republican state representative in Minnesota,
said by telephone. “If you block a freeway, you ought to go to
jail and when you get out, you ought to get the bill.”

Zerwas has introduced two bills, one of which would increase
the penalty for obstructing traffic to a gross misdemeanor,
meaning offenders could face up to a year in jail and a $3,000
fine. The other would make protesters pay policing costs if
their protests were deemed illegal or a nuisance by a court.

In Iowa, Republican state senator Jake Chapman is the lead
sponsor of a bill that would make it a felony to block traffic
on roads with speed limits of 55 miles-per-hour (88 km) or more.
Offenders would face up to five years in jail and a $7,500 fine.

“People are really fed up with it,” Chapman said of the
disruption caused by demonstrations.

He said his constituents were not against the protests as
such, but that they did not want their travel affected. He said
demonstrations should be held in “appropriate” places.


Free speech advocates said the proposals are worrying.

“What’s happening is a truly alarming spread of state
legislation that, if passed, will have the intent or impact of
criminalizing peaceful protests,” said Lee Rowland, an attorney
with the American Civil Liberties Union rights group.

The bills were “unconstitutional right out of the gate,”
Rowland said, adding that protests should be seen as a “success
of representative democracy,” not a problem to be solved.

Gregory Magarian, a professor at Washington University in
St. Louis School of Law, said the bills present a “major First
Amendment problem,” referring to the section of the U.S.
Constitution that guarantees the right to free expression.

“They (the lawmakers) are putting their petty ideologies
over the principles of free speech,” Magarian said.

Defenders of the proposals, however, argue that they were
formulated out of concern for public safety above all.

One bill by Indiana Republican state senator Jim Tomes calls
for police “to use any means necessary” to clear roads of people
unlawfully blocking traffic no more than 15 minutes after law
enforcement learns of the obstruction.

In an emailed statement, Tomes said he had no problem with
protesters who apply for permits in advance.

In North Dakota, where hundreds have been arrested during
protests against a pipeline, a bill by Republican state Rep.
Keith Kempenich would shield motorists from liability if they
unintentionally hit a protester on a roadway, injuring or
killing them.

Kempenich did not respond to requests for comment, but has
said he introduced the bill after his mother-in-law was caught
in a protest while driving.

“It’s shifting the burden of proof from the motor vehicle
driver to the pedestrian,” he told the Bismarck Tribune.

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