In North Dakota, motorists who run down demonstrators on public streets could be exempt from prosecution, even if someone is injured or killed, as long as the motorist did not purposely hit the victim.
In Minnesota, demonstrators who break the law could be billed for the cost of law enforcement.
And in Iowa, blocking traffic on a highway could be a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Civil libertarians and First Amendment scholars say these proposed measures are part of a disturbing national trend to stifle public debate and criminalize the constitutional exercise of free speech. They point to bills in statehouses from Washington state to Virginia that not only seek to stifle free speech but also would encourage vigilante justice from those who disagree with the demonstrators.
The legislation comes as protests mount nationally, from women’s marches that clogged streets in cities large and small, to demonstrations at airports around the country over the weekend in response to President Trump’s travel ban, to the long-standing oil pipeline opposition protest near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
“This goes beyond having a chilling effect on free speech, it puts a freeze on it,” said James Harrington, a veteran civil rights attorney in Texas who began joining demonstrations for civil rights and against the Vietnam War in the turbulent 1960s.
Backers of the bills argue measures are needed to control protests, which can block major roadways and incite violence.
Minnesota state Rep. Nick Zerwas, a Republican from a suburb near Minneapolis, said he was simply trying to help already cash-strapped communities that have been badgered by out-of-control protests over the last 18 months. The protests came in response to the police shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in July.
“I think if you’re convicted of a crime where you intentionally inflict as much expense and cost upon a community as possible, you ought to get a bill,” Zerwas said as he explained his legislation at a committee hearing. “It should not be property taxpayers’ responsibility to cover for your illegal behavior.”
The measure, approved last week by a House committee, drew such a large and loud rebuke that protesters halted further work by the panel for the rest of the day. Amid cries of “shame, shame” and “shut it down” from representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement and other activists, committee members got up and left without addressing the remaining legislation up for consideration.
Zerwas, whose bill has the backing of the Minnesota House speaker but is still awaiting a vote before the full House, said critics were reading more into the legislation than its wording contains. He insisted that it posed no threat to anyone’s First Amendment rights.
“It wouldn’t limit anyone’s ability to legally protest,” he told the committee. “It wouldn’t limit anyone’s ability to legally petition their government or to demonstrate.”
The bill protecting motorists who might hit demonstrators was filed by North Dakota state Rep. Keith Kempenich, a Republican who has served in the state House since 1993, in response to oil pipeline protests near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
Kempenich, a rancher, told the Washington Post in January that he filed the bill after his mother-in-law’s encounter with protesters who hurled themselves into the path of her car. He was not, he told the newspaper, seeking to stifle the right to peaceful assembly.
“But there’s a line between protesting and terrorism,” he told the Post. “And what we’re dealing with was terrorism out there.”
An Arizona lawmaker is pushing a measure that would punish organizers of demonstrations that escalate into a riot under state racketeering charges. That would allow authorities to go after the organizers’ financial assets.
“If somebody is funding someone to go out and cause a riot and damage property, they’ve gone beyond their First Amendment right,” said Republican state Sen. Sonny Borrelli, whose bill is scheduled to be heard in committee Thursday.
In Iowa, a state lawmaker filed legislation that would make obstructing traffic on an interstate highway a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. State Sen. Jake Chapman said the bill is in response to protests that followed the election of Donald Trump as president in November.
A bill in Washington state would define impeding commercial highway and rail traffic as “economic terrorism.”
“We know that groups are planning to disrupt our economy by conflating the right to protest with illegal activities that harm the rights of others,” the bill’s author, state Sen. Doug Ericksen, said on his website. “We need this legislation to protect the rights of all citizens.”
One man who took part in the protest of the shooting of Castile, in St. Paul, Minn., last summer called legislation aimed at curbing demonstrations “garbage laws.” The demonstration led to a confrontation with police that led to several injuries and more than 100 arrests on riot charges and other allegations. Most of the riot charges were dropped a short time later.
John Thompson, who said he was a friend of Castile’s, told the committee that the protest was needed to get the attention of policymakers who too often are out of touch with the black community.
“We have no voice,” Thompson told the Minnesota lawmakers. “We vote for people like you to make changes. We vote for people like you to give us hope. We vote for people like you to stand up against garbage laws like this.”
Harrington, a professor at the University of Texas Law School in Austin and the founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the authors and supporters of such legislation would do well to remember not only their high school civics classes but also their history.
Hoisting a banner in support of environmental protection or locking arms in support of racial equality are just as much acts of patriotism as marching in a local Fourth of July parade, he said.
“This nation has gained so much because people decided to take to the streets,” Harrington said. “It was the marches for civil rights that attracted the television cameras to show the brutality against African Americans who wanted the right to vote or to sit at a lunch counter.”
Harrington said those who would sideline dissent today would be wise to recall the noisy and sometimes messy origins of the tea party rallies and the passionate efforts to upend health care legislation in the early days of the Obama administration.
“The exercise of free speech knows no party line,” he said.
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