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Tough-on-Protesting Bills Worry Free-Speech Advocates

About an hour after some 200 police officers cleared the last demonstrators against the Dakota Access Pipeline from their sprawling encampment on the North Dakota prairie last week, Gov. Doug Burgum signed into law four bills aimed at making it easier to control such protests.

About an hour after some 200 police officers cleared the last demonstrators against the Dakota Access Pipeline from their sprawling encampment on the North Dakota prairie last week, Gov. Doug Burgum signed into law four bills aimed at making it easier to control such protests.

 

With a few strokes of a pen, he placed the state in the vanguard of an emerging backlash by conservative forces against political and social advocates who see demonstrations — however unruly — as free speech protected by the Constitution.

 

In a season rife with demonstrations over immigration, pipelines, abortion, women’s rights and more, Republican legislators in at least 16 states have filed bills intended to make protests more orderly or to toughen penalties against ones that go awry. Republicans in two other states, Massachusetts and North Carolina, have said they will file protest-related bills.

 

Those numbers include only bills whose sponsors have specifically linked them to protests, said Jonathan Griffin, a policy analyst who tracks the measures at the National Conference of State Legislatures. How many will be enacted is unclear; a few already have been pronounced dead in committee.

 

Some sociologists and legal experts say the bills are in line with a general trend toward tougher treatment of protesters in the wake of especially disruptive demonstrations like the Occupy Wall Street movement in Manhattan and the 2014 violence in Ferguson, Mo.

 

But interviews and news reports suggest that some of the measures are either backed by supporters of President Trump or are responses to demonstrations against him and his policies. After a Nashville motorist struck safety workers who were escorting anti-Trump protesters at a crosswalk, a Tennessee state representative introduced legislation that would relieve motorists of any liability should they accidentally hit someone deliberately blocking a street.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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