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Lawmakers in Eight States Have Proposed Laws Criminalizing Peaceful Protest

Over the weekend, millions of demonstrators took to streets across the country to mobilize against the new president and his agenda, assembling in a national turnout that organizers call the beginning of a reinvigorated protest movement. But in states home to dozens of Saturday’s demonstrations, Republican lawmakers are moving to criminalize and increase penalties on peaceful protesting.

Last week, I reported that such efforts were afoot in five states: In Minnesota, Washington state, Michigan, and Iowa, Republican lawmakers have proposed an array of anti-protesting laws that center on stiffening penalties for demonstrators who block traffic; in North Dakota, conservatives are even pushing a bill that would allow motorists to run over and kill protesters so long as the collision was accidental. Similarly, Republicans in Indiana last week prompted uproar over a proposed law that would instruct police to use “any means necessary” to clear protesters off a roadway.

Over the weekend, readers alerted me to two additional anti-protesting bills, both introduced by Republicans, that are pending in Virginia and Colorado. This brings the number of states that have in recent weeks floated such proposals to at least eight.

In Colorado, Republican state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg has introduced a bill that would greatly increase penalties for environmental protesters. Under the proposed law, obstructing or tampering with oil and gas equipment would be reclassified from a misdemeanor to a “class 6” felony, a category of crime that reportedly can be punished by up to 18 months behind bars and a fine of up to $100,000.

A state with a fierce debate over oil and gas extraction, Colorado has seen a number of demonstrations in recent years against fossil fuel industries, and a town in the state recently floated a proposal to support the civil disobedience actions against environmentally harmful drilling methods. (Republican sponsors of North Dakota’s current bill cited activists’ successful actions against the Dakota Access Pipeline as a primary motivation for their current attempt to crack down on protest.)

CANNON BALL, ND - DECEMBER 04:  Native American and other activists celebrate after learning an easement had been denied for the Dakota Access Pipeline at Oceti Sakowin Camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on December 4, 2016 outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota. The US Army Corps of Engineers announced today that it will not grant an easement to the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under a lake on the Sioux Tribes Standing Rock reservation, ending a  months-long standoff.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Native American and other activists celebrate after learning an easement had been denied for the Dakota Access Pipeline at Oceti Sakowin Camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on Dec. 4, 2016, outside Cannon Ball, N.D.

Although Sonnenberg’s bill touts itself largely as a public safety measure and makes no mention of protesters, its language broadly includes anyone who “attempts to alter, obstruct, interrupt, or interfere with the action of any equipment used or associated with oil or gas gathering operations.” In addition to imposing potentially significant terms of imprisonment and fines on anyone engaging in such activity, the bill also includes a clause appearing to buttress the ability of oil and gas firms to pursue their own separate claims against a protester who is also being prosecuted by the state.

With control of Colorado’s legislature split between parties and a Democrat in the governor’s office, the future of Sonnenberg’s bill is uncertain.

In Virginia, state lawmakers are considering an anti-protesting law that is apparently broader in scope. A bill pending in the state’s Senate would dramatically increase penalties for people who engage in an “unlawful assembly” after “having been lawfully warned to disperse.” Currently, this law is classified as a class 3 misdemeanor, which according to Virginia statute carries only a maximum $500 fine. Yet the bill proposed by Republican state Sen. Richard H. Stuart elevates such infraction to a class 1 misdemeanor, which means protesters would expect up to a year of incarceration and a fine of up to $2,500.

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan says there is a possibility that the bill will pass both chambers of the Virginia state legislature and says the state Senate could vote on it as early as Monday afternoon. However, McClellan expects that, if successful in the General Assembly, the bill would likely receive a veto from Virginia’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe.

Nonetheless, the legislation has troubled Democratic lawmakers. McClellan says she is alarmed by the move because of the law’s applicability to an enormous range of situations.

“As someone who is a direct beneficiary of the civil rights movement and all the gains that were the direct result of civil disobedience, I strongly oppose this effort to further criminalize dissent,” McClellan said. “The way the bill is worded is very broad: Take the student sit-in leaders — you could put those protesters in jail for up to a year.”

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