The speaker of the Arizona House said he won't hear a bill that makes participating in or helping organize a protest that turns into a riot an offense that could lead to criminal racketeering charges, a move prompted by widespread criticism that the legislation sought to limit First Amendment rights.
The measure passed last week by the Senate drew nationwide attention, particularly from civil libertarians, because it classified violent protest as an organized crime and said protesters who didn't initially intend to riot could still face criminal charges. That attention led Speaker J.D. Mesnard to decide Monday to kill it for the session.
Mesnard told The Associated Press that people all across the country now believe that the Arizona Legislature is trying to enact a law that will suppress their First Amendment right to assemble.
"It's gotten a lot of attention, and frankly whether it's fair or unfair, whether its accurate or inaccurate, at this point doesn't matter," he told the AP. "That's certainly not what the Legislature wants to be about — I know that's not what the sponsor wanted in the first place. The best way to send a very clear signal that we're not doing it is to not move the bill."
The Republican House speaker controls the path of legislation through his chamber, so Mesnard's decision means the bill is dead.
The Arizona legislation is the latest in a string of proposals in Republican-led states intended to crack down on protests. South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard is pursuing legislation to make it clear that his emergency response powers apply to destructive protests, create new trespassing penalties and make it a crime to obstruct highways, a move prompted by protests in North Dakota over the Dakota Access pipeline. A recent Washington Post tally showed efforts in 18 states, with proposals like stiffer penalties for blocking highways to increased trespassing penalties on critical infrastructure.
Arizona's bill was the most egregious, and the intent was certainly to turn the state's next Black Lives Matter or immigration protest into an opportunity to declare thousands to be felons, throw them in prison (or deport them) and remove their right to vote. Like most states, Arizona does not allow felons to vote, and if convicted of multiple felonies, that disenfranchisement is permanent.
But several other states are moving to criminalize mass protests. Republicans in Arizona may have been defeated for now, but eventually this bill or something like it will be passed, and it will be used against people of color to disenfranchise. harm, or even kill.