Governor wants to criminalize unpermitted street protests

Opponents of Gov. Mike Dunleavey’s proposal to criminalize unpermitted street protests and other activities that block passage through public places said it is unconstitutional, too vague and too broad to become law.

If Senate Bill 255 or its companion, House Bill 386, is passed into law, certain types of protest could be counted among the state’s most serious crimes.

Dunleavy has said the bill is aimed at increasing public safety. It would impose penalties for blocking highways, airport runways and other public places if it causes significant risk of physical harm or interference with emergency response efforts.

But its critics, testifying in a Senate Transportation Committee hearing on March 21, said the legislation would infringe on their civil liberties.

Kay Brown, a former state representative who lives in Anchorage, criticized the bill for lack of clarity and said it criminalizes constitutionally protected behavior. “I think it is an attempt to intimidate, dissuade and discourage people from assembling,” she said.

Patty Saunders, a former lawyer from Anchorage, said she is certain that lawsuits would follow if the governor’s proposal becomes law.

“This is guaranteed litigation. Absolutely guaranteed somebody is going to get arrested, and somebody is going to sue, because this violates the Constitution. I don’t know how much it’s going to cost, but it’s going to cost a lot because it’s going to go all the way up to the Supreme Court,” she said.

But the bill found support among some lawmakers in a House Transportation Committee meeting the same day.

Homer Rep. Sarah Vance called the bill simple and straightforward.

“We don’t want to limit anyone’s freedom of speech, or right to assemble,” Vance said. “And this bill, in my mind, in no way does that. But it puts everyone on an equal playing field that says that their right to get from where they need to go, from point A to point B, is not going to be obstructed.”

Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes said the bill looked like a solution seeking a problem and was concerned about the lack of public support, but Committee Chair Rep. Kevin McCabe, of Big Lake, said it is preventative. He acknowledged a “fine line” between protecting the rights of travelers and protesters.

The House Transportation Committee moved the bill to the Judiciary Committee. The Senate Transportation Committee will again consider the Senate version of the bill this week.

The two bills have generated dozens of opposition letters from the public, mostly concerned that their First Amendment rights are in jeopardy.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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