This past Saturday, millions of women gathered in cities across the world to participate in the Women’s March on Washington, marking a new age of peaceful demonstration in the U.S. However, Senate Bill 285 (SB 285) a bill authored by Indiana Republican Sen. Jim Tomes, aims to hinder this First Amendment right.
SB 285 is designed to deal with “traffic obstruction by protesters” and calls for public officials to quickly clear any mass traffic obstruction, defined as 10 or more protesters, from blocking the roads.
The bill states that “A responsible public official shall, not later than fifteen minutes after first learning that a mass traffic obstruction exists in the official’s jurisdiction, dispatch all available law enforcement officers to the mass traffic obstruction with directions to use any means necessary to clear the roads of the persons unlawfully obstructing vehicular traffic.”
Opponents of the bill attended a hearing for the legislation at the general assembly in Indianapolis earlier this month, arguing that the bill could pressure police to take severe measures in shutting down protests.
“I don’t think it’s necessary. I think we have enough laws on the books that people understand what they’re doing,” says Terri Lynn Siler, organizer of the Indianapolis women’s march.
Tomes claims that the main motivation behind this proposal is aimed at keeping the streets clear, emphasizing the importance of allowing emergency vehicles to pass.
In a statement, Tomes explained, “Anyone who wants to stage or participate in a protest or demonstration is free to do so. But they will need to do what all other organizations do for an event or demonstration: apply for a permit with their local government. With this information, first responders will know what roads are going to be blocked and what roads they can take when responding to an emergency.”
This is among the many controversial bills Tomes, known for his conservative agenda, has introduced in the recent years.
In 2016, Tomes proposed a bill that would make it a class A misdemeanor for a transgender person to use the restroom matching their gender identity, as well as introducing a proposal that would make it easier for alcohol offenders to obtain a handgun license.
Similar proposals designed to criminalize peaceful protest have appeared across the country. Republican legislators have quietly introduced a number of proposals designed to discourage protesters.
In North Dakota, site of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest, Republicans introduced a bill that would allow motorists to run over and kill any protestor obstructing a highway as long as it is deemed an accident.
“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a driver of a motor vehicle who unintentionally causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway is not guilty of an offense,” the bill states.
Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-Wash.) authored a proposal that would reclassify protests a class C felony, if they become what he calls “economic terrorism.” The bill would allow felony prosecution of protestors who purposely disrupt transportation or commerce.
States like Minnesota and Michigan have introduced bills that would dramatically heighten penalties and fines against protesters who disrupt highway traffic. In Michigan, the proposal would also make it easier for businesses to sue individual protestors.
In Iowa, Rep. Bobby Kaufmann plans to introduce a controversial piece of legislation he dubs the “suck it up, buttercup” bill. Kauffmann, who initially planned to cut funding for election-related grief counseling and sit-ins in the state, dropped this part of the bill upon the discovery that universities had not been spending additional state resources on these events.
The section of the bill that remains intact plans to establish new criminal penalties for protesters who disrupt highways.
As for SB 285, Indiana protestors and organizers remain critical of the bill.
“I do believe that in the past four years Indiana has taken so many steps to remove a lot of the rights that we have had in the past,” Siler explained.
There has been no vote on the bill and it’s future remains undecided. If passed, the bill would become active in July.