By Debra J. White –
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press or the right of people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievance,” so says the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was adopted on December 15, 1791.
Just what that means has been debated ever since, and Arizona has been launched into the center of the latest debate. Under Arizona SB 1142, a bill called the “riot act,” demonstration organizers could have been charged with rioting if two or more people, even if unknown to the organizers, caused a disturbance that resulted in property damage. Organizers could have faced asset seizures and possibly prison time as well as responsibility to pay for the damage. Further, demonstration planners could have been punished if law enforcement even suspected the event may end violently. The bill would have allowed prosecutors to charge people with conspiracy ahead of any actual event.
Rioting and destruction of property are already criminal offenses in Arizona, but the bill would have empowered prosecutors to apply the RICO (Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations) Act to rioting. The federal RICO Act was passed by Congress in 1970 to give prosecutors extra muscle in prosecuting organized crime, such as the Mafia and drug cartels. States have adopted their own versions of RICO laws, but they have rarely been used to try to punish organizers of protest marches.
SB 1142 was passed by the Arizona Senate on a party line vote of 17 Republicans to 13 Democrats on February 22, 2017. However, on February 27, Speaker of the House J.D. Mesnard stopped the bill from proceeding. The bill received statewide and national attention from critics who said it infringed on free speech and went after a nonexistent problem in Arizona. Had it been enacted into law, there was a strong likelihood it would have been litigated, and laws that infringe upon free speech are almost always knocked down in court. In the Arizona Capitol Times on February 28, Mesnard said the bill had become politically unacceptable and he had concluded that it “would chill the rights of Arizonans to peacefully protest.”
Protesting has been part of American life since colonial days and the Boston Tea Party. Quakers protested slavery, students protested the Vietnam War and concerned citizens protest abortion. Sometimes protests turn violent, injuring police and/or protesters. By and large, however, protests large and small in Arizona and across the USA are entirely peaceful and without incident, such as the nationwide women’s marches in January 2017.
So why did Arizona state Senator Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu City) sponsor SB 1142? According to the senator, “Rioting is not protected by the First Amendment. Rioting is already a criminal act. Damaging property is also a criminal act. However, if during the investigation it is discovered as ‘fact’ that a person is being paid to commit these criminal acts that fact constitutes a criminal conspiracy. This should be covered in RICO and the employer should also be held accountable.”
Republicans who supported SB 1142, such as Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake) and John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills), pointed out recent protests where violence did occur namely in Berkeley CA. In early February, Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing provocateur and at the time a reporter for Breitbart News, was invited to deliver a speech at the University of California, Berkeley. A group of about 100 people stormed the campus, set fires and destroyed property, and Yiannopoulos was evacuated for his personal safety. Allen, Kavanagh, and Borrelli said they wanted to prevent similar violence in Arizona although the bill’s sponsor and other Republicans agreed there was no evidence of paid protesters or property destruction at demonstrations in Arizona.
Minority Leader Katie Hobbs (D-Phoenix) was quoted in the Arizona Republic on February 23, saying that allegations of paid protesters were fake news. “We have more important things we should be doing,” said Hobbs. There have been suggestions that the violent protesters in Berkeley were anarchists who were not affiliated with the university and may have been paid, but there has been no supporting evidence.
Steve Kilar, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said that SB 1142 was a solution in search of a problem. “I’m glad the bill seems to be dead,” he said.
Was SB 1142 possibly a reaction to citizens standing up for their civil rights and demanding to keep their health care? There has been widespread dissatisfaction with the presidency of Donald Trump and his policies about immigration, the environment, wildlife, the Muslim ban, the proposed wall between the U.S. and Mexico, increased military spending, and other issues. In fact, President Trump has the lowest approval rating of any newly elected president. No other president in history has faced so many protest rallies so early in his presidency.
Where do we go from here? There is still a chance SB1142 or another form of it may be revived in a future legislative session. Demonstrations won’t end either here in Arizona or around the nation. President Trump continues to sign unpopular executive orders regarding immigration, the environment, wildlife and the military. His attacks against the free press are worrisome. He is the first president to skip the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner in 36 years. President Ronald Reagan didn’t attend in 1981 but that’s because he was recovering from an assassination attempt, not because of an embattled relationship with the press.
Earth Day is approaching in April, and with it another large demonstration. Since 1970, Earth Day has been an annual celebration of the environment and how to protect our natural resources. This year on April 22, scientists have organized protest marches for Washington and across the nation to protest Trump’s policies and draw attention to climate change. Trump doubts the existence of climate change and has proposed drastic cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. There may well be demonstrations about other Trump proposals such as a drastic increase in military spending, building a wall between the USA and Mexico and his revised Muslim ban.
Republicans may be uncomfortable with such protests but if the organizers obtain permits, they are legal as long as the demonstrators remain peaceful. Challenges to free speech almost always fail.
Liban Yousuf, staff attorney with CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) Arizona, said he’s glad the bill was killed. “It was a thinly veiled attempt to quell free speech,” said Yousuf.
As long as the Trump administration keeps churning out policies that are disagreeable to many or most Americans, expect people to protest and stand up for their rights. It’s the American way.