After 200 police officers cleared the last demonstrators against the Dakota Access Pipeline from their sprawling encampment on the North Dakota prairie last week, Gov. Doug Burgum signed four bills aimed at making it easier to control such protests, the New York Times reports. He placed the state in the vanguard of an emerging backlash by conservative forces against political and social advocates who see even unruly demonstrations as free speech protected by the Constitution. In a season rife with demonstrations over immigration, pipelines, abortion, women’s rights and more, Republicans in at least 16 states have filed bills intended to make protests more orderly or to toughen penalties against ones that go awry. Republicans in two other states, Massachusetts and North Carolina, have said they will file protest-related bills.
Some sociologists and legal experts say the bills are in line with a trend toward tougher treatment of protesters after especially disruptive demonstrations like the Occupy Wall Street movement in Manhattan and the 2014 violence in Ferguson, Mo. Some of the measures are either backed by supporters of President Trump or are responses to demonstrations against him and his policies. After a Nashville motorist struck safety workers who were escorting anti-Trump protesters at a crosswalk, a Tennessee state representative proposed a bill that would relieve motorists of any liability should they accidentally hit someone deliberately blocking a street. Some of the measures may face constitutional hurdles, said Kevin O’Neill, a scholar of protest law at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University. “There’s a First Amendment right of access to sidewalks, public squares and even public streets,” he said. “Heckling is a well-protected First Amendment right.”