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Protest bill dies in Arizona amid nationwide efforts to expand punishments

Arizona House Speaker J.D. Mesnard held a bill in Arizona that would expand definitions and laws to further punish protesters

Organizer Randy Perez starts a chant during an election results protest on the ASU Tempe campus on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016.

Organizer Randy Perez starts a chant during an election results protest on the ASU Tempe campus on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016.

Protesters and community activists rejoiced, as a bill that would have expanded the definition of racketeering to include violent protests was held Monday by Arizona State House Speaker J.D. Mesnard (R-Chandler).

Senate Bill 1142 was part of a nationwide spate of statehouse bills that targeted various types of protests over the last few weeks. This trend caused alarm and outrage from the activist community.

Mesnard told The Arizona Republic Feb. 27 he was not considering the bill, meaning that the bill would not move forward in the legislative process. Mesnard could not be reached for comment.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu), introduced the bill and said he was trying to protect civilians who pay for property damage.

“The first amendment is not absolute,” Borrelli said. “We are trying to do is trying to protect civil liabilities of the citizens, who end up paying for all the incidents that get out of hand.”

Borrelli said the bill would be a way to go after professional, paid protesters.

“If somebody is actually paid to agitate a crowd, and create all kinds of havoc, and their intent is to do just that ... ,” Borrelli said. “If they figure out that some of these people are paid to go out there and create these riots, we should go after the money source of the people that are violating the first amendment.”

Borrelli also said peaceful protests are still permitted through the bill. 

“Martin Luther King and Caeser Chavez had peaceful protests, and that’s the way it should stay,” Borrelli said.

Randy Perez, an ASU justice studies, political science, and public policy junior and Democratic community organizer, said the bill went against American values.

“It’s undemocratic, it’s ignorant, it’s really an assault on the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly which is guaranteed under the first amendment,” Perez said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Perez praised Mesnard for holding the bill and said the nationwide trend of bills regarding protesters was a reaction to the Democratic groundswell of grassroots action.

“I think it is clearly a reaction towards the incredible Democratic movement that has come from the grassroots level that we have seen since the election of Trump,” Perez said. “I think that that is why House Speaker Mesnard, for once, did something that was just and right and won’t even give this terrible legislation a vote in the house.”

Despite claims by Perez and others, experts do not agree that the law itself was unconstitutional. 

Paul Bender, dean emeritus of law at the Sandra Day O'Connor school, said the laws themselves may be constitutional, although the motivation behind them may not be.

“There is a difference between what motivates the bill, and what the law says,” Bender said. “If the law just says you can’t block traffic, as long as the law on its face prevents everyone from blocking traffic its probably unconstitutional.”

Bender said the trend may be due to constitutionally questionable purposes, but that the bills could still be constitutional.

“You can have unconstitutional motivations and do constitutional things,” Bender said. “Just increasing the penalties for rioting is not unconstitutional; even if you are doing it because you don’t like the particular people who are rioting these days.”

Bender said that he would be worried, however, if the law was interpreted to allow members of a group who rioted, who were not part of the riot to be charged.

“If it says people who are part of a group that riots are all guilty of rioting, that troubles me — also because it applies to people who may not have done anything,” Bender said.

Reach the reporter at or follow @isaacwindeschef on Twitter.

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