Lawmakers Impose Criminal Restrictions on Protesters | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

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Lawmakers Impose Criminal Restrictions on Protesters

In the final hours of the legislative session, a bill cracking down on protesters received unanimous consent.

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The final week of the legislative session is pandemonium. Dozens upon dozens of bills fly through the House and the Senate, often with only minutes of debate—if any. While many of the proposed laws are innocuous, the fast pace means some are passed without lawmakers having even read the bill, which creates the opportunity for things to slip by unnoticed that would have been controversial had they been pointed out and discussed.

Senate Bill 221, Capitol Protocol Amendments, sponsored by Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, seemed like one of those innocuous bills. In fact, when it was presented by Madsen, it was described as merely "technical changes" to increase efficiency, and it was passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House.

The bill does three things: It enhances criminal penalties for alcohol consumption at the Capitol (something that is already illegal); it gives the Utah Highway Patrol power to cite those who park in the wrong stalls (e.g., lobbyists and members of the public who park in lawmakers' spots) and it enhances criminal penalties on protesters at the Capitol.

As he presented the bill in committee and the floor, Madsen focused his presentation on the alcohol and parking sections of the bill, describing stories of partiers in limos who make stops at the Capitol late at night, and take drinks into the building.

But the section on the criminal penalties on protesters received no discussion on the Senate floor, the House committee or on the House floor, where it was presented by Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo. Instead, the bill was presented as a minor adjustment, made at the request of the Capitol Preservation Board—the board comprised of the lieutenant governor, members of the Legislature, and Capitol staff who oversee the complex.

Madsen tells City Weekly that he was specifically trying to go after protesters who block lawmakers' ability to enter or exit their offices. "We need to be able to do our job up here," he says.

But the language is written so broadly, it could go much further in limiting protests, saying that a person who "willfully denies to a public servant lawful ... freedom of movement, [or] use of the property or facilities" is guilty of a misdemeanor.

Could that mean that a lawmaker who disagrees with a protester's message at the Capitol might walk up to him or her and demand they be arrested if they don't move— even if the protest isn't blocking access to any committee rooms or offices?

"It's a serious concern," says John Mejía, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. "We don't know what's meant by 'freedom of movement' or 'use of property or facilities.' These are vague terms that would allow officials to decide for themselves when [protests] would be allowed and when these restrictions would be enforced."

Madsen counters that while lawmakers want protesters to express their concerns at the Capitol, there are time, place and manner restrictions created for such activities. "If a person has a permit, then the law protects them because they're lawfully there," he says. "But if you don't have a permit, you're not there lawfully and then we could invoke [this] statute."

Allyson Gamble, executive director of the Capitol Preservation Board, says she was shocked to hear that the new law's language could be so applied. "We encourage any and all points of view, and definitely protect people's rights to come up and have a free-speech event," Gamble says. She can only recall one time in the past few years when protesters at the Capitol were actually arrested, and that was the "Capitol 13" protesters, who, in 2014, blocked access to a committee room in protest of the Senate's refusal to hear the proposed anti-discrimination bill for LGBT people. "I can't even imagine [the statute] actually being used like that."

City Weekly was told by the office of Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox, who chairs the Capitol Preservation Board, that Cox did not know of the new criminal restrictions on protesters in the bill.

Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, voted in favor of the bill in committee and on the House floor. He was visibly upset to learn what was in the bill, saying, "The act of civil disobedience is one with a hallowed history of the United States."

But, he acknowledges, "When you run bills through in the last days when we're in that type of rush, and someone isn't completely transparent about what's in their bill, sometimes it happens that things make it through which many of us would have been opposed to."

Although the bill is already passed, Mejía says "it might be too vague to enforce," and that the ACLU is now assessing what its options are.

In addition to covering state politics for City Weekly, Eric Ethington is communications director for Political Research Associates.

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