Calling the current political environment turbulent or rancorous would be understatement. Since Donald Trump’s ascent to power, more people than ever are voicing their concerns—from the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protests, to Black Lives Matter, to last month’s Women’s March, to the spontaneous airport protests that erupted after Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim travel ban. Many participating are first-time protesters—people that have never before joined mass demonstrations but have been compelled to by the caustic tenor of the times.
But it turns out that some state elected officials don’t like it when people exercise their right to assemble and speak out against injustice and intolerance. Legislators in at least eight states have introduced bills that would essentially criminalize First Amendment activity. The legislation all aims to suppress free speech and prevent people from joining together and speaking out against tyrannical government and corporate power.
Many of these bills are too extreme to be believed. Legislation in North Dakota would effectively legalize vehicular manslaughter for motorists who run over protestors. A bill in Indiana would encourage police to use “any means necessary” to remove protestors from blocking traffic. Protestors slowing down traffic in Iowa would face dramatically increased fines and jail sentences. A North Carolina legislator (famous for introducing the anti-LBGTQ potty police bathroom bill) wants to make it illegal to heckle politicians.
These bills are not just coming from red states. A proposed bill in Washington state would create a new crime—“economic terrorism”—that could jail protesters for up to a year for obstructing traffic. The Washington legislation would make some demonstrations a Class C felony—like kidnapping or human trafficking.
A Minnesota bill in response to local Black Lives Matter protests would allow local governments to sue anyone at a protest for police security costs. It would apply equally to peaceful protestors or even bystanders who could be held responsible for the cost of basic public safety. The sponsor compared his legislation to forcing arsonists to pay the cost of fighting forest fires, showing that these lawmakers are intent on conflating the first amendment with criminal activity.
The first of these bills showed up in North Dakota in response to DAPL protests where thousands of indigenous members of the Great Sioux Nation were joined by water protectors, veterans and pipeline protesters. The NoDAPL actions that blocked local highways and construction equipment brought national attention to the Standing Rock Sioux’ concerns over the pipeline possibly polluting their water supply. President Obama weighed in late and only withdrew the final approval for the controversial pipeline in December — a decision Trump overturned in early February.
The North Dakota legislation would give a free pass to motorists who negligently injure or kill pedestrians who were not completely off the road. The driver would be totally free of legal consequences — no crime, no fine. The bill’s sponsor suggests that the rights of drivers outweigh the first amendment — “motorists are going about the lawful, legal exercise of their right to drive down the road” whereas protesters have “made a conscious decision to put themselves in harm's way.”
This all-out assault on the First Amendment cannot and will not stand. Food & Water Watch is working closing with our national and local allies to stop these unconstitutional bills dead in their tracks. Our supporters in these states are already contacting their state houses and we are monitoring other states for more of these attacks on our civil liberties so stay tuned and watch out for our action alerts.
You can help: donate to help defend activists' right to protest.
Update! The day after we posted this piece, the North Dakota legislation was narrowly defeated, but other anti-free speech bills are still pending in state legislatures across the country.