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Several states introducing legislation to criminalize protests

A rally against Donald Trump stretches a few blocks along Central Park West in New York, Monday, Feb. 20, 2017. People unhappy with President Donald Trump's policies are attending a "Not My Presidents Day" rally near a Trump hotel. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

In the wake of almost monthly protests across the nation, GOP lawmakers from several states have passed or drafted bills that would criminalize or penalize what one state is calling "professional" agitating.

According to a report from The Hill, some states like North Dakota, South Dakota and Tennessee have either already passed bills that would allow them to "stiffen penalties against protests," or have gotten bills through the first set of hurdles in their state Senate. Other states, such as Arizona and Minnesota have either introduced legislation or have made anti-protest bills a priority for the legislative agenda the coming year.

The Hill reports:

The wave of bills come after high-profile protests including the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, and the Women's March on Washington, which took place the day after Trump’s inauguration.

The women’s march drew more than 3 million participants in cities across the nation.

The North Dakota effort grew out of the protests surrounding the Dakota Access pipeline, where activists had taken up residence in the District of Cannon Ball, North Dakota. They spent months voicing opposition to a 1,000-mile underground oil pipeline that some native groups and protestors feel poses an environmental threat. A group organized on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation successfully sued for an injunction to halt construction, and a protest at the site during that process garnered worldwide attention. In January, the local Sioux tribe issued a statement asking the protesters to vacate.

The four new laws signed Thursday by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) were passed under emergency provisions that allow them to take effect immediately. The new measures "increase sanctions for offenses related to riots and broaden the definition of trespassing, allowing law enforcement officers to issue citations and fines," according to The Hill.

Similar laws being considered in other states include:

  • South Dakota state senators on Thursday passed a bill that gives the governor the power to create a "safety zone" in emergency situations, with fines as punishment for violations.
  • Minnesota lawmakers plan to make resolutions punishing protestors who block access to highways a top priority this legislative session.
  • Arizona Republicans are trying to expand racketeering laws that would give authorities more latitude to arrest and seize assets of those who organize protest events.
  • Tennessee introduced a measure, sponsored by state Rep. Matthew Hill (R), that gives give civil immunity to a driver who hits a protester blocking traffic after a car hit volunteers helping protesters cross a street in Nashville as they demonstrated against President Donald Trump's travel ban executive order.

According to The Hill, civil libertarians are worried the measures are unconstitutional overreactions and a violation of the right to assemble.

“Robust protest activity is a sign of the health of our republic. Our democracy is literally designed for citizens to get out in the streets and make their voices heard to their legislators,” said Lee Rowland, a senior attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

On Tuesday, Trump said on Twitter that protesters at Republican town halls were "liberal plants."

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