By Bob Christie
The speaker of the Arizona House said Monday he won’t hear a bill that makes participating in or helping organize a protest that turns into a riot an offense that could lead to criminal racketeering charges, a move prompted by widespread criticism that the legislation sought to limit First Amendment rights.
The measure passed last week by the Senate drew nationwide attention, particularly from civil libertarians, because it classified violent protest as an organized crime and said protesters who didn’t initially intend to riot could still face criminal charges. That attention led Speaker J.D. Mesnard to decide Monday to kill it for the session.
Mesnard told The Associated Press that people all across the country now believe that the Arizona Legislature is trying to enact a law that will suppress their First Amendment right to assemble.
“It’s gotten a lot of attention, and frankly whether it’s fair or unfair, whether its accurate or inaccurate, at this point doesn’t matter,” he told the AP. “That’s certainly not what the Legislature wants to be about — I know that’s not what the sponsor wanted in the first place. The best way to send a very clear signal that we’re not doing it is to not move the bill.”
The Republican House speaker controls the path of legislation through his chamber, so Mesnard’s decision means the bill is dead.
The Arizona legislation is the latest in a string of proposals in Republican-led states intended to crack down on protests. South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard is pursuing legislation to make it clear that his emergency response powers apply to destructive protests, create new trespassing penalties and make it a crime to obstruct highways, a move prompted by protests in North Dakota over the Dakota Access pipeline. A recent Washington Post tally showed efforts in 18 states, with proposals like stiffer penalties for blocking highways to increased trespassing penalties on critical infrastructure.
Arizona passed a law last year making it a mid-range misdemeanor to intentionally block access to a political campaign event or a government meeting or hearing. That bill was prompted by protesters who blocked a highway leading to a Donald Trump campaign event outside Phoenix.
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has worked to avoid divisive legislation since he took office in 2015 as he works to change the perception that Arizona is a state where such legislation is enacted. Mesnard said he hadn’t been pressured by the governor’s office, but Ducey’s spokesman did issue a statement praising the decision.
“While we do not comment on pending legislation, we have been advised that SB1142 isn’t moving forward, which we are pleased to hear,” Ducey spokesman Daniel Ruiz said in a statement.
All 17 Senate Republicans supported the measure and all 13 Democrats voted no last week.
Senate Bill 1142 would allow prosecutors to seize a person’s assets in addition to enhanced criminal charges. Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, has said his bill is needed to deter violent riots and go after groups he says are paying protesters. Opponents said it is so broadly written that it could ensnare innocent people and chill free speech rights.
During last Wednesday’s vote, Democrats said there is no evidence that current laws against rioting, property destruction and assault are ineffective. They said the measure will having a chilling effect on free speech rights by adding new crimes under racketeering laws commonly called RICO statutes.
“This is a total perversion of the RICO process, the racketeering process, and I see major Constitutional issues down the line,” said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson. “I don’t think this is going to do anything but get us into more lawsuits.”
Republicans pointed to violent riots that broke out last month in Washington, D.C., among peaceful demonstrations after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, and violent protests in Berkeley, California, against a prominent right-wing speaker who backs Trump, Milo Yiannopoulos. They alleged the violence in some cases was the result of paid agitators.
“I have been heartsick at what is going on in our country, what young people are being encouraged to do,” said Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake. “And there’s a difference between a protest and a riot. And what we have been watching is riots.”
Sen. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, chastised Republicans, calling it “fake news that people are being paid to riot.”
Mesnard said his decision was a practical one to end an unnecessary distraction and that trying to undo the perception in people’s minds at this point just isn’t possible.
“I did look at the bill, it’s actually a bill of relatively few words, but they insert the word riot there sort-of in the racketeering. You put it right below terrorism and people think ‘Oh my goodness, really, riot and terrorism is the same thing?’ ” Mesnard said. “Well, they’re not the same thing. I don’t think that’s what the bill is trying to get at.”
Mesnard said he has told Gov. Doug Ducey’s office, and Republican leadership in the House and Senate of his decision. And he told Borrelli of his reasons.
“I’ve explained that to the sponsor. He’s very gracious about that,” he said. “I know firsthand that’s not his motivation at all.”Φ
Bob Christie writes for the Associated Press.