When faced with First Amendment activity they don't care for, some legislators attempt to gerrymander this right until it only contains the speech they like. This can take the form of cyberbullying bills, hate speech legislation, and, lately, anti-protesting laws.
The problem with these efforts is they routinely run afoul of the Constitution. Some do better than others trying to stay within the confines of what can actually be controlled by the government, but in most cases, the proposed laws are badly-written rush jobs attempting to paper over the current issue du jour.
Another anti-protesting law is in the works, prompted by oil pipeline demonstrations both in North Dakota and, closer to home, in the district of the state rep introducing the bill, Scott Martin of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Under the terms of the bill, “a person is responsible for public safety response costs incurred by a State agency or political subdivision as a result of the State agency’s or political subdivision’s response to a demonstration if, in connection with the demonstration, the person is convicted of a felony or misdemeanor offense.”
In other words, they could be on the hook for costs, such as police overtime, medical or emergency response, or other basic public services associated with protests. Whatever felony or misdemeanor offense the protester was convicted of would come with its own independent penalty.
Because the state's laws concerning damage to property and the usual assortment of rioting-related charges apparently isn't enough to deter people from complaining about stuff in Martin's district, a new law must be put in place to hold demonstrators responsible for the actions of others, as well as anything the state might want to add to the final post-protest invoice.
The bill cites -- in support of its First Amendment-chilling efforts -- the millions of dollars spent by government agencies in response to the Dakota Pipeline protests. It's a slick move, one that might convince more bottom-line-oriented legislators to hop aboard despite the obvious Constitutional implications.
In practice, this law could saddle someone picked up during a protest for blocking a sidewalk (a misdemeanor) with a sizable chunk of the costs incurred by the government during the protest. This will discourage most people from showing support for any controversial cause or, indeed, for any cause at all. Any protest of any size will result in additional expenditures by government agencies, all of which can now be passed on directly to the protest's participants.
And it won't be spread evenly among participants. The costs will be borne only by those arrested, which creates an incentive to arrest as many protesters as possible to offset projected expenses. This, in turn, will push prosecutors towards ensuring even the most bullshittiest of charges sticks, as they'll have to answer to lawmakers waving ledger books filled with red ink if they don't.
Sure, this bill won't survive a Constitutional challenge, but someone's going to have to spend their own money to correct the Pennsylvania government's error. Hopefully, the bill will get laughed out of the legislature immediately -- especially since Rep. Martin's intentions may be less than honorable.
DeSmog Blog notes that Martin has close ties to pipeline lobbyists. Prior to joining the Pennsylvania Senate, Martin worked for a firm called Community Networking Strategies. CNS is a subsidiary of the lobbying firm, McNees, Wallace & Nurick — which lobbies for Gulf Oil Ltd, Industrial Energy Consumers of Pennsylvania, and Sunoco Logistics.
If it does somehow become law, it will be a statewide embarrassment and a vehicle for government abuse. And it will give the state the ability to rob Peter twice to pay Officer Paul's protest-related overtime.