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Bills Targeting Protests In U.S. States Fuel Free Speech Fears

(Reuters) – Republican lawmakers in several central U.S. states are pushing bills that would crack down on demonstrations, drawing criticism from free speech campaigners and underlining the polarization over protests in the era of President Donald Trump.

Bills have been introduced over the past month in states including North Dakota, Indiana, and Iowa that would impose measures such as harsher penalties for demonstrators who disrupt traffic, and scrapping punishment for drivers who unintentionally strike protesters blocking their vehicles.

The push for stricter laws comes as opponents of Trump have vowed to take to the streets to demonstrate against his policies on issues ranging from immigration to abortion and climate change. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in women’s marches on Jan. 21 in cities across the country.

While the fate of the bills was not immediately clear, supporters say they sum up the frustration some people feel about protests that get in the way of their daily lives.

“People are just kind of sick and tired of this garbage,” Nick Zerwas, a Republican state representative in Minnesota, said by telephone. “If you block a freeway, you ought to go to jail, and when you get out, you ought to get the bill.”

Zerwas has introduced two bills, one of which would increase the penalty for obstructing traffic to a gross misdemeanor, meaning offenders could face up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine. The other would make protesters pay policing costs if their protests were deemed illegal or a nuisance by a court.

In Iowa, Republican state senator Jake Chapman is the lead sponsor of a bill that would make it a felony to block traffic on roads with speed limits of 55 miles-per-hour (88 km) or more. Offenders would face up to five years in jail and a $7,500 fine.

“People are really fed up with it,” Chapman said of the disruption caused by demonstrations.

He said his constituents were not against the protests as such, but that they did not want their travel affected. He said demonstrations should be held in “appropriate” places.

‘TRULY ALARMING’

Free speech advocates said the proposals are worrying.

“What’s happening is a truly alarming spread of state legislation that, if passed, will have the intent or impact of criminalizing peaceful protests,” said Lee Rowland, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union rights group.

The bills were “unconstitutional right out of the gate,” Rowland said, adding that protests should be seen as a “success of representative democracy,” not a problem to be solved.

Gregory Magarian, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, said the bills present a “major First Amendment problem,” referring to the section of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees the right to free expression.

“They (the lawmakers) are putting their petty ideologies over the principles of free speech,” Magarian said.

Defenders of the proposals, however, argue that they were formulated out of concern for public safety above all.

One bill by Indiana Republican state senator Jim Tomes calls for police “to use any means necessary” to clear roads of people unlawfully blocking traffic no more than 15 minutes after law enforcement learns of the obstruction.

In an emailed statement, Tomes said he had no problem with protesters who apply for permits in advance.

In North Dakota, where hundreds have been arrested during protests against a pipeline, a bill by Republican state Rep. Keith Kempenich would shield motorists from liability if they unintentionally hit a protester on a roadway, injuring or killing them.

Kempenich did not respond to requests for comment, but has said he introduced the bill after his mother-in-law was caught in a protest while driving.

“It’s shifting the burden of proof from the motor vehicle driver to the pedestrian,” he told the Bismarck Tribune.

(Reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin in Chicago; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Bernadette Baum)

IMAGE: FILE PHOTO —  Demonstrators form a line to stop traffic on Interstate 580 during a demonstration following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in Oakland, California, U.S. November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

Appeals Court Rejects Pence Order Barring Syrian Refugees As Discriminatory

By Timothy Mclaughlin

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Indiana Governor Mike Pence, the Republican nominee for U.S. vice president, lost another round in federal court on Monday in his bid to keep refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war from resettling in his state.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago affirmed a lower-court ruling that Pence’s order seeking to bar state agencies from helping the resettlement of Syrian immigrants discriminates against the refugees based on their national origin.

The setback for Pence comes a day before he is scheduled to debate the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, on national television.

Pence was among more than 25 U.S. governors, mostly Republicans, who urged President Barack Obama to stop resettling refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war after November attacks by extremists in Paris that killed 130.

Critics of the resettlement program have argued that it leaves the United States vulnerable to infiltration by militants from Islamic State, also known as ISIS, which has seized vast swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq and claimed responsibility for attacks on civilians in Paris and elsewhere.

But Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner, writing for the three-judge panel that sided unanimously against Pence, said the governor’s assertions of a national security threat were presented “without evidence” and amounted to “nightmare speculation.”

All three appellate panel members are Republican appointees, including Judge Diane Sykes, who Pence’s running mate, Donald Trump, has said he would nominate to the U.S. Supreme Court if he wins the Nov. 8 presidential election.

A Pence spokeswoman, Kara Brooks, said the FBI and U.S. Homeland Security Department have acknowledged “security gaps” in screening of Syrian refugees. She also quoted a State Department spokesman who said last month that he “‘wouldn’t debate the fact that there’s the potential for ISIS terrorists to try to insert themselves’ into the refugee program.”

Pence’s order was blocked by a U.S. district judge in February after a court challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and he appealed.

The ACLU welcomed the court’s ruling on Monday as upholding the group’s position that the governor “may not constitutionally or legally discriminate against a particular nationality of refugees that are extensively vetted by the federal government.”

Indiana has accepted 150 Syrian immigrants between Oct. 1, 2015, and Aug. 31, 2016, accounting for about 9 percent of all refugee arrivals in the state during that period, according to the State Department.

(Reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin; Editing by Andrew Hay)

IMAGE: Republican vice presidential nominee Indiana Governor Mike Pence speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst