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‘By Any Means Necessary’ Bill Among Several Seeking to Target and Punish Protesters

Auditi Guha

States across the country are proposing new measures that will increase penalties for protesters who picket or block roadways and will decrease liability for motorists who hit an activist engaged in a protest.

In North Dakota, legislators are pushing a bill that frees from liability a motorist who accidentally runs down a protester obstructing a highway. In Minnesota, a recently introduced bill would fine demonstrators blocking a highway up to $10,000 and sentence them to a year behind bars. And in Michigan, lawmakers are considering an anti-picketing law that would increase penalties against protesters.

Several Republican-held legislatures have quietly proposed legislation aimed at curtailing or criminalizing public demonstrations. 

“These legislators, and no doubt future ones, are emboldened by the narrow, authoritarian caste of mind emanating from the new President—one that is ignorant of the basic premises of a healthy democracy and cowardly in the face of peaceful challenges to an unjust status quo,” Baher Azmy, legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, wrote in an email to Rewire. “But these laws will ultimately not suppress this movement both because of its growing strength and resoluteness and because a higher authority—the Constitution—protects the protesters’ rights more than it does the authoritarian’s power.”

Legislative efforts to punish those participating in protests are a response to recent demonstrations that have shut down public roads and hampered daily commutes. Some of these GOP-backed anti-protester bills add penalties to existing law, while others are tailored to hit back against peaceful protests. 

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These include a bill introduced by Republicans in North Dakota, HB 1203, that would allow motorists to run over and injure or kill anyone blocking a road if it was an accident; the Minnesota bill, HF 55, proposing heavier fines and imposing a year of jail time for freeway protesters blocking a highway; and a proposal in Washington state, the “Preventing Economic Terrorism Act,” to reclassify civil disobedience protests as felonies. 

Other efforts are also under way. An anti-picketing bill, HB 4643, proposed in Michigan last month to increase fines for picketers to $1,000 per day for an individual and $10,000 per day for an organization or union, while making it easier for businesses to sue them, was recently shelved in Michigan. And an Iowa Republican has pledged to introduce legislation to crack down on highway protests, according to the Intercept

SB 285, a bill proposed in Indiana’s Republican-majority legislature, would allow public officials to dispatch law enforcement swiftly to remove any protesters blocking traffic using “any means necessary.” It drew opposition Wednesday, according to the Guardian.

“I find it very disturbing and I don’t see a need for this as we have had some large protests here, but there was never any problem with them,” said Sue Ellen Braunlin, co-president of the Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice. She called SB 285 the “block traffic and you die bill.”

Republican proponents of anti-protest measures argue that residents should be able to go about their business without delays or blockages on public roads.

“Those motorists are going about the lawful, legal exercise of their right to drive down the road,” North Dakota state Rep. Keith Kempenich (R) told the Intercept. “If you stay off the roadway, this would never be an issue.”

But the measures have civil liberty and legal groups worried.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California Irvine School of Law and a member of the American Constitution Society board of directors, told Rewire in a phone interview that it is “very troubling that laws are being passed by Republicans with the purpose of stopping anti-Trump dissent.” 

Laws that prevent opinions from being expressed are clearly unconstitutional and “I expect a lot of lawsuits challenging these,” he said.

Jordan S. Kushner, a Minneapolis civil rights attorney, told the Intercept that laws that seem to target non-violent protests are “very heavily abused by police to charge people with crimes in response to minor resistance to police based on good faith disagreements with what they are doing.”

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