States Take Action Against Disruptive Protests

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Wash DC protest 2002. Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

Americans have a constitutional right to assemble and protest, but they don’t have the right to do it in the middle of a freeway. In contrast to demonstrations in recent decades, which often were held in fenced-off “free speech zones,” many protesters are being more disruptive, whether they’re blocking access to highways, chaining themselves to pipelines, damaging businesses or being physically violent toward other people or property. In response, state lawmakers—mostly Republicans—are seeking new ways to regulate or criminalize protests, reports Governing. “You have absolutely zero First Amendment protections or right to assemble in the center lane of I-94,” says Minnesota state Rep. Nick Zerwas, the GOP sponsor of a bill to increase penalties for trespassing on freeways. “Clearly, the current misdemeanor penalty hasn’t been an effective deterrent.”

The bill is part of a national trend. About 20 states are considering new regulations and penalties regarding protests. New laws have been enacted this year in several states, including Georgia, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Some increase penalties for picketing near “critical infrastructure,” such as pipelines and airports. Some call for protesters to pay overtime costs for law enforcement. Some threaten to seize protesters’ assets. Some require colleges and universities to suspend or expel students who disrupt campus speakers. “There’s no question you’ve seen an upsurge in the numbers of these bills and an increase in their stringency,” says Sam Munger of the State Information Exchange, a strategy center for progressive legislators. “It’s both reactive to a recent upsurge in grassroots protests and an effort to intimidate protesters.” Says Indiana University sociologist Fabio Rojas, “This is a very common thing in the history of the United States, to impose some costs on social movements or protest movements. Basically, the whole point of this is to suppress protests.”

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