One needn’t look hard to find the law protecting the right to protest in this country. It’s right there in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“Congress,” it says, “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Not that those words appear to matter lately to some Republicans.
In a troubling trend that has accelerated since President Donald Trump’s election, lawmakers in some states are pushing bills that would discourage and even criminalize mass public dissent. A recent analysis from the American Civil Liberties Union found that at least 17 states are considering such legislation.
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Senators in Arizona, for example, passed a bill last month that would make someone who organizes or even joins a protest that turns violent eligible for a racketeering charge – a prosecutorial tactic usually reserved for fighting organized crime. Even more chilling, the change would allow authorities to seize the assets of anyone involved in such a demonstration, even someone who walked away once rioting started.
In Washington state, a bill would create the new crime of “economic terrorism,” a felony, for protesters who block highways and railways and other modes of commerce. Republicans in Florida would go further, exempting drivers from liability if they hit a protester who is standing in the middle of the road.
There’s also a bill in North Carolina that would make it a crime to “intimidate” any current or former state officials. Apparently, this legislation is a reaction to protesters heckling former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who narrowly lost re-election to a Democrat.
Talk about thin-skinned.
Laws already on the books allow police to arrest people for obstructing traffic and prosecutors to charge rioters for damaging property. Yet Republican lawmakers continue to insist these new bills are necessary because “paid” protesters – not average, angry Americans – are behind the demonstrations that have erupted in cities across the country to oppose Trump.
Apparently they can’t imagine good citizens might be legitimately outraged at Trump and the policies Republicans are foisting on the American people. It’s a rationale as delusional as it is arrogant.
Lawmakers in red states should take a lesson from California Rep. Tom McClintock. Sure, the Republican congressman still blusters about the “anarchist element” that he, too, is convinced packs his town hall meetings. But at least he’s had the decency to face his constituents, even if he’s cruelly dismissive of their concerns, and has not tried to pass laws that circumvent their First Amendment rights.
That’s the kind of duty that our democracy demands. Not just during Sunshine Week, when calls from journalists for open access to government are sure to be at their loudest, but all the time – regardless of who occupies the White House and which party controls Congress.