The right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. But that isn’t stopping lawmakers from trying to punch holes in the Constitution – and to gauge what rights the people are willing to lose.
Since the election, Republicans in at least 18 states have introduced or voted on legislation to crack down on protests. Some bills are passing through their state’s Senate and House, while others have been shot down.
Perhaps the most extreme protest-curbing bill came from Arizona – no surprise to those of us who live here. SB 1142 would have allowed the government to seize the assets of anyone who plans or participates in a protest that turns bad, or that looks like it might turn bad.
Yes, that’s a vague statement, because SB 1142 was a scarily vague bill.
The bill expanded on the state’s racketeering laws to include not just organized crime but riots. Then it expanded the definition of riots to include property damage. Then it further muddied the waters by saying “an overt act is not required as proof of a riot offense.” How can you have a non-overt riot? A non-overt riot is a peaceful protest.
The Arizona State Senate passed the bill on February 22. Thankfully, SB 1142 died when House Speaker J.D. Mesnard refused to consider the bill. Why? Public outrage.
“[T]he simple reality is that it created a lot of consternation about what the bill was trying to do,” Mesnard, a Republican, told the Phoenix New Times. “People believed it was going to infringe on really fundamental rights. The best way to deal with that was to put it to bed.”
The lesson here is that, despite the number of battles we seem to be losing, we must continue to be vigilant and speak out when politicians try to take away our rights. There have been several instances in the last few months when politicians have bowed to public pressure. After Republicans tried to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics in January, public outcry forced them to reverse their decision. When Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz introduced a bill to sell off 3.3 million acres of public land, the people protested, called, emailed and Tweeted so much he withdrew the bill.
It was, of course, only a matter of time till politicians tried to take away the right of protest itself.
One of the most insidious things about some of the recent anti-protest bills is that they are based on a lie. Republicans are propagating the idea that protests are highly organized by people who are paying protesters. That’s why Arizona’s SB 1142 placed rioting under racketeering laws: so the government could treat protest organizers like crime bosses.
Republican Senator John Kavanagh told the Arizona Capitol Times, “You now have a situation where you have full-time, almost professional agent-provocateurs that attempt to create public disorder… A lot of them are ideologues, some of them are anarchists. But this stuff is all planned.’’
Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told the Salt Lake Tribune there was “a concerted, national effort, some of which was paid” behind the anger expressed at his town hall.
Wayne LaPierre, president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), said at the Conservative Political Action Conference: “The truth is the far left have turned protesting into what seems like a full-time profession. Seriously. You would think that for $1,500 a week they would at least know what they are protesting. Half of them can’t even tell you.”
There is absolutely no evidence that protesters are being paid, or that they are full-time professional anarchists, or that they don’t know what they’re protesting. These are falsehoods designed to discredit the protesters and their causes. The recent bills are designed to discourage people from protesting by making them afraid of arrest and fines.
It is vital that we do not let them scare us. Continue to peacefully march, contact your representatives, and stand up for your rights.
The Washington Post has compiled a list of anti-protest bills in numerous states – from North Dakota to Iowa – here.