Editorial: Laws to stop protests not in public’s interest

Published 9:19 am Monday, January 30, 2017

Discontent is afoot. Overreaction to it has surfaced like scum on a lake in August in the form of proposed legislation and vicious attacks of protesters on social media, including by those in public office.

Minnesota is among a growing number of states — eight as of the middle of last week — considering laws that would discourage big protests deemed disruptive.

On the face of it, that doesn’t seem that unreasonable an idea. Lots of people don’t want to be inconvenienced by a road being closed or access restricted to the airport if they are traveling. Clogging up general movement of the public doesn’t seem to be a good way to gain allies, and public safety shouldn’t be put at risk.

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But laws already exist that make it illegal to obstruct highways or trespass. When lawmakers strategize ways to discourage public dissent by making it too impractical and too expensive to do so, that should alarm every citizen.

Today the legislation would most affect Black Lives Matter gatherings and Women’s March participants. Tomorrow it could be anti-abortion protesters and tea party groups. Restrictions on freedom of speech affects everyone, no matter what your cause or political affiliation.

Among the proposed bills in Minnesota, one bill would raise obstruction of legal process to a mandated felony in all cases. Another would heighten penalties against those intentionally blocking freeway routes from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. The third would make anyone liable for the costs of a public-safety response if convicted of creating a nuisance or participating in an unlawful assembly. (One opposed lawmaker suggested if this bill is about the public dollars used for law enforcement’s response to protests, maybe another bill needs to be drafted to look at the public cost of settling cases alleging police use of excessive force.)

Throwing up barriers to people assembling to speak out might seem like a practical way to take care of things, but it doesn’t really get to the bottom of the discontent, does it?

When Women’s March groups recently gathered across the country and world, those who didn’t support the protesters took to social media to attack them. Indiana state Sen. Jack Sandlin credited Donald Trump with getting “more fat women out walking than (former first lady) Michelle Obama did in eight years.” A state senator resigned in Nebraska last week after he retweeted a joke implying that three women’s march demonstrators in a photograph were too unattractive to sexually assault.

Clearly we have a long way to go when it comes to tolerating one another when public officials stoop to this kind of crude behavior.

Attacking those you disagree with or legislating them out of existence is a simplistic reaction to not liking what you see. Minnesotans have a constitutional right to be heard and to have lawmakers represent them who understand the importance of being able to speak their minds and lawfully assemble in public.

— Mankato Free Press, Jan. 28

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