Arizona Anti-First Amendment Bill Would Allow Protesters To Be Charged As Racketeers

The message from the Arizona state legislature is clear: Think twice before you #RESIST.

As grassroots anti-Trump protests gather steam around the nation, the GOP-led state legislature in Arizona is advancing a bill aimed at silencing opposition voices.

Recently passed along party lines (17-13), Arizona Senate Bill 1142 would allow the government to seize personal assets and criminally charge anyone participating in an organized protest should it be tainted by violence that results in property damage – including protest organizers, even if they did not participate in the violence.

The bill represents an expansion of the state’s RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Organization) statutes to allow rioting, or the incitement of rioting, to be charged as a racketeering offense, thus equating consequences for political organizing to those of organized crime.

RICO laws, originally intended to prosecute organized crime, allow the police to seize property or assets that are acquired through criminal activity, and include an element of financial responsibility for property damage as well as a potential prison sentenceThe bill stipulates that “overt act is not required as proof of a riot offense,” meaning that protest organizers could be charged for the violent actions of protest attendees.

Consistent with unambiguous messages emanating from the Trump administration, the underlying intent of the bill is evident: Protesters must be silenced; Opposition speech will not be tolerated.

The knee-jerk, reactionary bill comes on the heels of protests that turned violent in Washington D.C. and on campus at UC  Berkeley. The bill’s supporters cite the need to moderate “paid protesters” in the incitement of riots, despite lack of evidence that protesters are paid to agitate, let alone protest peacefully. According to USA TODAY, during a debate on the proposal, Arizona State Senator John Kavanagh, (R-Fountain Hills), claimed:

You have almost full-time agents of provocateurs. A lot of them are ideologues; some of them are anarchists.

I believe a riot should be stopped before it starts. We can now go after organizing groups that are preparing and planning and nip it in the bud before they destroy our community, before they injure our citizens, before they destroy our reputation.

The bill, however, has already evoked strong reactions from Democrats who have found purpose and solidarity in the waves of public protests and demonstrations since Donald Trump’s inauguration. Arizona Sen. Steve Farley told the Arizona Capitol Times that the bill:

…will have a chilling effect on anybody, right or left, who wants to protest something the government has done.

Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada notes that Arizona already has laws in place – “assault charges, aggravated assault charges, criminal damage, threatening and intimidating, disturbing the peace” — that adequately address rioters and suggests that the bill will quash the public’s right to free speech at a time when it is most critical:

When people want to express themselves as a group during a time of turmoil … that’s exactly when people take to the streets. Sometimes they yell. Sometimes they go too far. But that’s exactly when we should be listening the closest.

The American Civil Liberties of Arizona agrees, and is watching the bill closely. Will Gaona, ACLU of Arizona lobbyist, says:

People are concerned. What we heard from legislators on the floor made it clear they are not just envisioning this as a means to punish those who engaged in a riot but those considering exercising their First Amendment rights. It’s intended to chill First Amendment speech.

The bill remains to pass through the House, and though not likely to survive in open court, the broader implications of it’s intent to ride roughshod over the public’s right to free speech and freedom of assembly cannot be underestimated. Our constitutional protections are under siege by the very institutions designed to uphold them.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

About Lisa Brenner 34 Articles
Staff writer, editor, liberal shade thrower.