State-level lawmakers launch a free-speech crackdown

Published on Monday, 15 May 2017 22:06
Written by John L. Micek

Back in the 1930s, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously referred to states as “laboratories of democracy.”

But these days, those labs are looking less Albert Einstein and more Dr. Frankenstein.

Enraged by the hundreds of thousands of women who peacefully took to the street in Washington in January, and the activists who camped out to block the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, lawmakers in 20 states are debating or voting on more than 30 bills aimed at criminalizing or otherwise cracking down on the protest movements spawned by President Donald Trump’s administration.

But critics say that, in their haste, these lawmakers are shredding the Constitution and stomping on free speech rights as they shovel the proposals into the legislative maw.

According to The Guardian, these efforts include measures banning protesters from wearing masks; boosting the fines for protesting in large groups, and immunizing drivers who hit protesters inconveniently cluttering up the roadway as they exercise a constitutionally protected right to free speech.

The “flood of bills represents an unprecedented level of hostility toward protesters in the 21st century,” the American Civi Liberty Unions’s Lee Rowland and Vera Eidelman wrote in a Feb. 17 blog post on this alarming trend.

“Is this spate of anti-protest bills a coincidence? We think not,” Eidelmand and Rowland wrote of the timing and prevalence of proposals in states where protests have been the most frequent.

Indeed, it’s little wonder that some state lawmakers have felt emboldened to act.

With an unsettling affection for despots and tweets dismissing his critics as losers who won’t accept election results or by saying he’d like to punch a protester in the face, as he did during the campaign last year, the guy at the top has made his feelings about dissent pretty clear.

In Oklahoma, for instance, the state House and Senate passed legislation imposing stiff penalties on anyone who trespasses on such “critical infrastructure” as a power plant or oil refinery, The Guardian reported.

If Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signs it into law, violators who trespass and damage such facilities would face a minimum of $10,000 in fines and/or at least a year in jail, according to OpenStates, which tracks legislation in all 50 states.

In Tennessee, meanwhile, lawmakers are debating a bill providing civil immunity to “the driver of an automobile who injures a protester who is blocking traffic in a public right-of-way if the driver was exercising due care.”

In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum signed that mask ban into law, along with a bill raising the stakes for a riot that “‘involves 100 or more persons”, doubling the maximum prison sentence to 10 years,’” The Guardian reported.

And while Trump’s supporters, might be cheering these measures and sneeringly dismissing his critics, it’s worth noting that they’re absolutely agnostic when it comes to the political persuasion of the protester.

That means the American right could just as easily find themselves at the business end of laws passed by their own party if, as progressives hope, there’s a shift in the political winds in 2018.

It was only seven short years ago, after all that critics of then-President Barack Obama, some shouldering semi-automatic rifles, congregated at constitutionally protected rallies themselves.

Second Amendment supporters like to argue that states don’t need new guns laws because existing statutes, vigorously enforced, are more than equal to the task.

The same principle is applicable here. Existing law should be more than enough to ensure that both the public and property are protected when large-scale rallies, such as the Women’s March - or the March for Life - take place.

And instead of celebrating the kind of vibrant civic engagement that we tell our children is vital to the health of the republic, these measures are intended to quash dissent and chill free speech.

And in our laboratories of democracy - that’s not a monster we want to bring to life.

An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the opinion editor and political columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at jmicek@pennlive.com.



Posted in New Britain Herald, Editorials on Monday, 15 May 2017 22:06. Updated: Monday, 15 May 2017 22:09.