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GOP lawmakers try to rein in mass protests with new state laws

March 3, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
In many state capitals, lawmakers are targeting protesters’ tactics amid a renewed wave of large-scale demonstrations, sparking debates over the question of free speech versus public safety. John Yang speaks with Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post about how far the new laws go and how civil liberties advocates are reacting.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: It’s a battle playing out around the country that you may not know about. Lawmakers are targeting protesters’ tactics in many state capitals, setting up debates over free speech vs. public safety.

John Yang has the story.

JOHN YANG: Clashes over a North Dakota oil pipeline, demonstrations after a Minnesota police shooting, the women’s march in Washington on inauguration weekend.

Mass protests are playing out on a scale not seen since the 1960s and ’70s. Some have turned violent. Now, in state capitals across the country, Republican lawmakers are trying to rein in protests. They say it’s a matter of public safety and limiting economic damage. Protesters and civil liberties advocates say it’s an attack on free speech.

In Minnesota, pending legislation would increase fines for blocking highways and airports.

BILL INGEBRIGTSEN, (R), Minnesota State Senator: Not any of us, the 67 senators at least that I work with here in the Minnesota Senate, want to squelch any First Amendment rights at all. But it goes over the top when public safety, the potential of public safety is interfered with.

JOHN THOMPSON, Community Activist: Do you honestly think that you are penalizing people? It’s already against the law. You honestly think that you raising the fine — there’s already a fine. That’s not going to stop us.

JOHN YANG: Last week, North Dakota’s governor signed four bills aimed at making it easier to control protests like those over the Dakota Access pipeline. Legislation is pending in 17 other states.

Among their provisions? Increasing penalties, including in some cases prison time, for blocking roadways, increasing penalties for rioting, allowing authorities to seize the assets of anyone involved in a violent protest, and relieving drivers of liability if they accidentally hit protesters blocking a street.

For a deeper look at this, we’re joined by Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post. He’s been tracking these legislative efforts across the country, and he joins us from Fargo, North Dakota.

Christopher, thanks for being with us.

Christopher, we heard some of the provisions of some of this pending legislation in the piece, but how much farther? Where will this take us if some of these bills are enacted into law? How much farther will this take us than where we are now?

CHRISTOPHER INGRAHAM, The Washington Post: Well, that’s the question.

And I think that’s what a lot of civil liberties advocates are worried about. They frame this essentially as an assault on free speech. And one of the things they’re worried about, the interesting thing about these bills is that they have been completely 100 percent across the board introduced by Republican lawmakers only.

So, one of the concerns is that if these laws get enacted, they can be used as cudgels by whoever is in power at a given time. So, for instance, you look at some of these bills, including the one that was signed in North Dakota, they would do things like make it illegal to wear masks or costumes a protest.

Now, that could apply to a guy wearing, say, a Guy Fawkes mask at the North Dakota Access pipeline protest. It could also apply to, say, a guy wearing a George Washington mask at a Tea Party process.

So when you have these things, they could potentially be really broadly applied. And I think that’s what a lot of observers are really worried about here.

JOHN YANG: What is driving this legislation? When you see a lot of bills introduced in state legislatures across the country like this, sometimes, there’s a group behind it are pushing it. Is there anything like that in this case?

CHRISTOPHER INGRAHAM: We’re not really seeing that.

You’re not really seeing evidence of a group like, say, ALEC, groups who drafts model legislation. There is some evidence that in some of the Western states, you see energy and oil companies lobbying legislatures to pass these bills, because, say, you know, they’re worried about the coming Keystone Access pipeline. They don’t want another North Dakota pipeline situation unfolding.

So, there is some interest from energy groups to do this. But in a lot of cases, it’s just legislators, it seems, taking initiative to do it themselves in response to protests they see, like protests for Donald Trump, protests for black men who have been shot by police officers. There’s really just a lot of different things all kind of converging on this.

JOHN YANG: I know in your reporting, you have talked to civil liberties advocates. How do they think these laws would stand up to court challenges?

CHRISTOPHER INGRAHAM: That’s really an interesting question.

One thing that multiple people — and these are people in the university, as well as people as the ACLU. One thing that they have said is that the Supreme Court and the federal courts have been really clear in the past 10 years or so, specifically calling out public places like streets as places that are protected, where protest is protected.

They have some real doubts about whether or not these would pass constitutional muster. One thing they say is that, look, you look all across the country, there is basically not a single jurisdiction that doesn’t already have some sort of law on the books making it a crime to obstruct traffic.

I think where they might get into trouble legally — and we will have to see how this plays out — is where you try to make it a crime to specifically protest in a public street.

I think that might be a dividing line that some of the courts might be interested in exploring.

JOHN YANG: How much public support are there for bills like these? What is the public sentiment, from what you can tell?

CHRISTOPHER INGRAHAM: It’s all over the place.

I haven’t found any good polling on this. I look at the responses to the article that I wrote, and they’re really cleaved down partisan lines. You have half the folks saying, I was driving home the other night and I was stopped by a protest on the highway and it took me six hours to get home, and it was a huge headache, and I think we really need this legislation.

And then I hear from people who say, look, I have been to some of these protests. I’m infuriated that lawmakers are trying to crack down on this, and this only strengthens my resolve. It makes me more likely to go out there and protest some more.

And I think, on that measure, you can kind of look at these bills as kind of an indicator of the success that these protesters have had at bringing these issues up to a national level, to the extent that lawmakers feel they have to respond to them.

JOHN YANG: Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post, thanks for joining us.

CHRISTOPHER INGRAHAM: Thanks for having me.

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