© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
Marsha Blackburn, Thom Tillis
Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Thom Tillis introduced a bill that would make it a federal crime to purposely block traffic on public roads and highways. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Conservative Lawmakers Nationwide Want to Crack Down on Protests

“There’s a growing sentiment on our side to say to [protesters], if you’re breaking the law, there’s got to be consequences that come,” Sen. Josh Hawley told NOTUS.

Republicans in the House and Senate say something must be done to stop disruptive protests — and if they can’t do it on the national level, they’re glad to see their colleagues in state legislatures taking up the job.

House and Senate Republicans have introduced eight bills targeting protesters this year, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. It’s a big jump from last year when only one piece of anti-protest legislation was introduced at the federal level.

But many Republicans acknowledge that these national bills are unlikely to become law and are looking to the states. Bills aimed at new and harsher penalties for protest-related actions have been introduced in at least 16 states, including North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, Illinois and more.

“I’m all for this new legislation,” Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley told NOTUS. “There’s a growing sentiment on our side to say to [protesters], if you’re breaking the law, there’s got to be consequences that come.”

Republicans ramped up bills targeting protest activities in the wake of mass demonstrations over George Floyd’s murder in 2020. This year, all of the pending national bills are aimed at protests over Israel’s war in Gaza, with penalties ranging from barring student loan forgiveness for campus protesters to requiring those involved in pro-Palestine demonstrations to do mandatory community service in the Gaza Strip.

Republican Sens. Thom Tillis and Marsha Blackburn introduced the Safe and Open Streets Act in December of last year in response to a highway protest in Durham, North Carolina. The bill would make it a federal crime to purposely block traffic on public roads and highways, punishable by a fine or up to five years in prison. Republican Rep. David Rouzer introduced a companion bill in the House.

“Republicans reached a consensus pretty quickly on this, but we know that it is dead on arrival in this Congress,” Tillis said. “It’s because Biden is going in a direction that even some Democrats are nervous about, but none of them are willing to up the ante by supporting some of the bills that we propose.”

Conservative lawmakers hope to have better luck on the state level.

Some of their efforts have already failed: Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed a bill passed by Arizona’s Republican-controlled state legislature in April to create a new felony offense for protesters demonstrating on highways or public roads, punishable by up to five years and nine months in prison.

But other bills are still in the works. A similar law is pending in state legislatures in Illinois, Alaska, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Washington.

In Tennessee, Republicans successfully passed a bill this month moving the “obstruction of a street or highway” from a misdemeanor to a felony, punishable by at least two and up to 12 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

A law pending in Missouri would make sponsors and organizers of any protests that result in property damage or personal injury liable for damage costs.

Republicans say the demonstrations against the war in Gaza have gone beyond just breaking the law to inconveniencing the lives of others not involved.

“If you’re driving to work or taking your kids to school, why should you have to sit in a traffic jam all day long?” Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said. “Because people are protesting? They’re not protesting. They’re disrupting civil society.”

“We’ve hit a point where individuals are going well beyond their freedom of speech and going to the point of intimidation and hate toward others,” New York Rep. Marc Molinaro said. “That is a line this country has always tried to protect against.”

It’s not just protesters themselves that need more severe penalties, Republicans say.

“It’s also the institutions that don’t take responsibility for protecting others,” Molinaro said. “A lot of our legislation says if you want to welcome that freedom of speech, you must also protect people’s individual safety.”

House Republicans are seeking to hold colleges accountable for student protests, with leaders of Yale University, UCLA and the University of Michigan joining a hearing next week about antisemitism on campuses. Republicans are considering withholding funding for universities and organizations that they allege fail to protect against the harassment of Jewish students.

“Protest is great,” Rep. Burgess Owens told NOTUS. “Just do it within the law, and if you don’t, recognize that you have to pay a price.”

Calen Razor is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.