Commentary: Seek to stifle dissent and you suppress free speech

By The Washington Post Editorial Board

The past few months have seen an explosion of political protests — and an explosion of state legislative efforts to stop them. Though many of these dissent-stifling bills may not make it past committee, much less survive the scrutiny of a court, the onslaught of legislation is a troubling sign that state lawmakers intend to respond to an engaged civil society by trying to shut it up.

Republican lawmakers in at least 18 states, including Washington state, since the election have introduced or considered legislation imposing higher penalties and harsher rules on protesters. The bills range from the restrictive, such as ramping up punishment for highway obstruction, to the ridiculous: an Arizona bill that proposed expanding the state’s racketeering laws to include rioting, or an attempt in Tennessee to protect drivers who run over protesters in public rights-of-way from civil liability, as long as they do so accidentally.

Lawmakers present their bills as attempts to curb destructive and dangerous acts, and they are right that window-smashing and limousine-burning bring meager value to the marketplace of ideas. They’re also right that the sustained obstruction of major highways can prevent the passage of emergency vehicles, at potentially great cost. But localities already have laws prohibiting that sort of behavior on their books. Scaling up the consequences beyond what’s reasonable seems designed to scare people away from peaceful protest.

It also fits a pattern of officials delegitimizing dissent: Lawmakers in some states have complained lately that protesters are “paid” to speak up, parroting claims made by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, after hecklers got heated at his town hall and by White House press secretary Sean Spicer after thousands flocked to airports to oppose the president’s travel ban.

Many of the bills working their way through the states are of doubtful constitutionality, which may explain why some legislatures have killed them before they could be challenged. Yet that does not mean there is no cause for concern. Legislators should be listening to constituents who care enough about a cause to take to the streets — for their own sake and the sake of the communities they represent. If mass movements of the past are anything to go on, boxing out the opposition will only make polarization greater and some protesters louder. The bills could also have a chilling effect on others who want to make their voices heard.

A Minnesota lawmaker backing one of the recently introduced bills noted that “there is a point where one person’s rights end and another’s begins.” Locating that point requires more care than these legislators have shown.

The above editorial appeared in Saturday’s Washington Post.

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