Thanks to Republican state legislators, organizing protests in Arizona might soon be enough to land residents in jail.
Under the recently proposed SB 1142, any protest or rally found to be disruptive in the eyes of local law enforcement will be stripped of its First Amendment protections. Instead, rowdy protests and riots will be lumped into the same criminal classification as racketeering.
Clearly, both sides of the political aisle have a consistency problem.
Traditionally, racketeering laws have been used specifically to take down organized criminals. However, according to certain Republican leaders in Arizona, protests against President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders are “paid” and “planned” efforts, making these rallies “similar” to mafia-related activity.
“You now have a situation where you have full-time, almost professional agent-provocateurs that attempt to create public disorder,” Senator John Kavanagh stated. He continued, “A lot of them are ideologues, some of them are anarchists, but this stuff is all planned.’’
Echoing this sentiment, State Senator Sylvia Allen, went as far as to suggest that rowdy protestors should also lose their right to due process:
“If they get thrown in jail, somebody pays to get them out, there has to be something to deter them from that.’’
Since President Trump was elected in November, protests have become a daily occurrence across the entire country. While some of these public gatherings—like the recent UC Berkeley riots, for example— have turned unruly and resulted in extensive property damage, criminalizing free speech is not the correct solution to this problem. Not only is this a horrific violation of the right to assemble, it is completely hypocritical of those on the right, who found themselves on the other side of this situation only a few short years ago.
The Pot Attacks the Kettle
It wasn’t so long ago when disenfranchised Republicans and independent voters rallied together to tell the federal government that they had been Taxed Enough Already.
Anyone fitting the profile of a Tea Party activist was once considered a domestic threat.
In many ways, the modern Tea Party movement was a political phenomenon. Suddenly, straight-laced moms and dads, local libertarians dressed as their favorite Founding Father, and even hipster college students joined together to fight back against crippling taxes, a failing economy, and the broken promises of the Obama administration.
The left was so unnerved by this massive right-wing display of dissatisfaction, some went to extremes to demonize these protesters.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Tea Party groups were not only considered “hate groups,” anyone fitting the profile of a Tea Party activist was also considered to be a threat to the country.
Suddenly, U.S. surveillance agencies and fusion centers began changing their definitions of “domestic terrorists” to include those who strongly advocated for limited government. One particular incriminating document in Missouri even cautioned local law enforcement to be suspicious of vehicles donning Ron Paul or “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper stickers.
Those who were part of the “fringe” right-wing were understandably angry and disgusted that so many on the left would disregard the right to free speech when the content didn’t fit their rhetoric. This was, of course, right after the era of George W. Bush and his campus “free speech” zones that were basically reserved for anyone protesting the war on terror. To Tea Partiers, this lack of consistency on First Amendment issues was a huge problem.
Unfortunately, many of these former Tea Party members are the same people now trying to limit the free speech of others in the era of Trump.
Clearly, there is a consistency issue on both sides of the political aisle, but Arizona Republican lawmakers are not doing themselves by pushing an issue that may come back to haunt them in the future.
State Senator Steve Farley pointed this out by saying:
“…And all of a sudden the organizers of that march, the local Tea Party, are going to be under indictment from the county attorney in the county that raised those property taxes. That will have a chilling effect on anybody, right or left, who wants to protest something the government has done.’’
Demonizing Free Speech
Unfortunately, this is not the first time this year that Arizona legislators have tried to limit free speech.
Within the first few weeks of January, two Republican lawmakers, feeling bulletproof in the wake of Trump’s win, proposed legislation that would ban any curriculum or campus event centered on the topic of social justice.
This was, of course, a response to the demonization of free speech on campus over the last few years, where students on the left have sought to shut down right-leaning groups who advocate for free speech, or whose content is found offensive by others. While no one is justified in infringing on someone else’s right to free speech, fighting censorship with censorship is never the answer.
In a very real sense, Arizona’s new bill promotes pre-crime.
Luckily, the bill died before moving on, but Arizona’s new legislative proposal to limit free speech is far more egregious than even this first attempt.
Under SB 1142, “rioting” would be redefined as, “actions that result in damage to the property of others.” However, law enforcement will also still be able to determine when a protest crosses the line into “riot” territory.
As defenders of private property, holding individuals accountable for the destruction of said property is understandable, to say the least, but that is not what this law will actually do.
Under current law, rioting and destroying property are already crimes. What this new legislation does is escalate existing law by allowing law enforcement to act before any sort of public gathering has taken place. In a very real sense, this is pre-crime.
Racketeering laws allow law enforcement to arrest and detain anyone suspected of planning or attending a rally. This also allows police to use civil asset forfeiture against those suspected of racketeering, which, under the new law would also extend to those organizing or simply planning to attend a political protest.
Democratic State Senator, Andrea Dalessandro expressed her concerns over this bill by saying:
“I’m fearful that ‘riot’ is in the eyes of the beholder and that this bill will apply more strictly to minorities and people trying to have their voice heard.”
The bill passed the senate by a vote of 17-14 on Wednesday and will now move on to the state house. If the bill is approved, it will be placed on the desk of Governor Doug Ducey, who recently made headlines by speaking out against occupational licensing and who will hopefully have the sense to veto this bill and protect all forms of free speech.
Brittany Hunter is an associate editor at FEE. Brittany studied political science at Utah Valley