The Republican-controlled Arizona Senate recently passed on a party-line vote a bill that addresses a real, if sporadic problem (protests that erupt into violent riots), but with a dose of overkill: racketeering laws designed for organized crime:
The full Arizona Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that makes participating in or helping organize a protest that turns into a riot an offense that could lead to criminal racketeering charges, legislation Republican backers say is needed to crack down on violent protesters.
The measure adds rioting to the organized crime statutes and says an overt act isn’t needed to prove conspiracy to riot, meaning someone could be charged who wasn’t involved in the actual riot.
In an effort to produce a “trend” of Republican crackdowns on “peaceful protest,” a story by Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post’s WonkBlog draws together Republican proposals in 18 states (many of them proposals by an individual legislator or otherwise far from becoming a law), gratuitously comparing them to responses to the (scrupulously non-violent) Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Arizona proposal, like a few of the others, imposes excessive and unnecessary sanctions that hopefully will be moderated before being passed into law, but even a cursory review of Ingraham’s examples illustrate that nearly all are aimed at violence, property destruction, and obstruction of the lives and livelihoods of ordinary citizens, not just non-violent protests. Of the 18 state proposals:
- Three (in Arizona, Oregon, and Virginia) deal directly and specifically with rioting, such as the Oregon proposal to expel state college students after they have been convicted of violent rioting.
- Three (in North Dakota, Colorado, and Oklahoma) target protests that shut down pipelines, a clear act of property vandalism that affects the livelihoods of a significant segment of each state’s economy.
- Nine (in Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Washington) target obstruction of traffic on public roads, airports and railways. The Supreme Court in 2014 unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law cracking down on protests in a “buffer zone” around abortion clinics, so there are some limits to what can be done in this area (even as to anti-abortion protestors, who are typically granted fewer free speech rights than protestors on other issues), but even recognizing some First Amendment limits, it’s hard to see how blocking traffic on public property can’t be against the law. You’ll recall that members of Chris Christie’s administration were convicted of federal crimes on the theory that slowing down traffic was a violation of civil rights and a threat to public safety.
- One, in North Carolina, is a not-yet-introduced bill to making it a crime to “threaten, intimidate or retaliate against” current or former state officials, which may or may not be overbroad given its as-yet-theoretical prohibitions, but one would think that a law against threats and intimidation would not refer to peaceable picketing.
- The last, in Missouri, is a law that “would make it a crime to conceal one’s identity with a mask, robe or other disguise while committing the crime of unlawful assembly or rioting.” Notably, numerous states already have such laws, which were enacted in the mid-20th century to combat the Ku Klux Klan, and have generally been upheld by the courts (including a 2004 opinion of the Second Circuit by then-Judge Sotomayor upholding New York’s law).
Parties in power tend to dislike protests, of course, and Republicans in some states may well be overreacting to the persistence of riots, looting, arson, and violence that tend to accompany left-wing protests over the past decade. But the narrative that this is a wave of legal crackdowns on people peacefully stating their case to the public is a false one.
Correction: This article originally mis-described the outcome of the Supreme Court case as upholding, rather than striking down, the law blocking clinic access.