Inspired by Trump, new Arizona law redefines free speech

The Arizona law increases penalties against protesters who block access to a political rally. Is blocking access to a political event a political statement in itself? 

Patrick Breen/The Arizona Republic/AP
Protesters block a car on a street leading to a rally for Donald Trump in Arizona on March 19, 2016.

In a Phoenix suburb in March, protesters parked about two-dozen cars in the middle of the highway to stop drivers on their way to an outdoor rally for Donald Trump and Joe Arpaio, the controversial Arizona sheriff.

With posters that read "Dump Trump" and "Must Stop Trump," the protesters, in one sense, acted on their right to demonstrate against the Republican frontrunner and the sheriff who was sanctioned for refusing a judge's order to stop racial profiling.  

But Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) saw it differently: The demonstrators prevented Trump supporters from expressing their political views.  

Inspired by this event, Governor Ducey signed a measure into law Monday that increases penalties on protesters who block traffic to political events.  

"That hopefully will create a deterrent for people intruding on others' abilities," said Daniel Scarpinato, a gubernatorial spokesman. "There's a balance here of everyone getting their voice heard."  

"If someone is physically preventing someone from participating in exercising their constitutional rights, that is unacceptable," said Mr. Scarpinato.  

In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Trump campaign's orders to remove protesters from its rallies, the Arizona law could further complicate this conflict between competing free speech rights: A protesters' right to demonstrate vs. how they demonstrate can prevent others from expressing their views.  

The measure Ducey signed is made up of two laws. One increases the penalty for anyone found to have intentionally blocked traffic for access to a political campaign event or government meeting or hearing to a six-month jail sentence, according the Associated Press. The other law prevents state universities and community colleges from limiting where free speech can be exercised, which directly affects a lawsuit against Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix. Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian organization that aims to protects free speech, alleges the college prohibited a student from having an informational table in a "free speech" zone on campus.  

Although Ducey and the one of the two bill's sponsors celebrated the laws, not everyone in the state legislature was happy about it.   

"To stop somebody from going to a political rally to hear a candidate is not furthering the First Amendment,'' said Steve Farley, a Democratic senator. "It is suppressing that person's First Amendment right to assembly.'' 

The First Amendment does restrict violence. Yet, questions around whether incitements of violence, trespassing, and obstructing others from expressing their own, constitute violence or actual restrictions on speech.  

In the Occupy Wall Street movement, for instance, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered New York City police to clear protesters' encampment at Zuccotti Park because, he said, it become a "fire and health hazard."   

In an interview with ProPublica shortly after the incident, Geoffrey Stone, a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, cautioned that the First Amendment is "not absolute."  

"Government can make reasonable stipulations about the time, place and manner a peaceable protest can take place, as long as those restrictions are applied in a content-neutral way," he said. "Things like noise, blockage of ordinary uses of the place, blockage of traffic and destruction of property allow the government to regulate speakers." 

These restrictions apply to all public spaces, he said.  

In the year after the Occupy Wall Street movement, President Obama signed into a law an act that further provides government the right to restrict protesters. The Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Acts is an update to a law that restricts areas around the president, vice president, or any others under the protection of the Secret Service, Slate reported shortly after the passage of the law in 2012. Under the act, restricted areas can also include large public events like the Super Bowl and the party conventions, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Some said the passage of the law was minor, while others said it gave prosecutors the right go after any protester who knew they entered a restricted area, but didn't realize their actions were illegal.  

Private property makes things trickier because owners can constitutionally call the police to remove someone for trespassing. At his rallies, Trump has called for removal of protestors because they are private events.  

In an interview with The Huffington Post three days before the Arizona protest, Stone said Trump can ask police to remove from his rallies anyone who opposes his candidacy. But its' debatable whether Trump can forcibly remove those who oppose his political views if he didn't advertise the event as only for Trump supporters, said Stone.  

In a comment thread on The New York Times website, Jay Levine, of Richmond Virginia, weighed in.  

"Where does it say someone has a right to disrupt a private event?" wrote Levine. "If Trump holds his rallies in public venues, then fine, he has to face the public. However if he pays for a private venue and the participants are there by invitation, then no, people do not have a 'right' to protest inside the venue."  

"They of course can protest outside the venue all they want," he added.  

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