Arizona Mulls Stiffer Penalties for Political Protesters

Protesters at a Donald Trump rally in Fountain Hills in March.
Protesters at a Donald Trump rally in Fountain Hills in March.
Elizabeth Stuart

Incensed by a group of protesters who blocked a road in an attempt to shut down a Donald Trump rally in Fountain Hills last month, an Arizona senator is pushing to increase the penalty for political protesters who interfere with traffic. 

Already, protesters who block traffic can be charged with a class-3 misdemeanor, fined up to $500 and sentenced to 30 days in jail. Republican Senator John Kavanagh would like to up the crime to a class-1 misdemeanor and bump the punishment to a $2,500 fine and a six-month jail sentence if protesters intentionally block access to a political campaign event or a government meeting. 

Kavanagh said the current penalty is a "slap on the wrist" appropriate for "rowdy young people who get drunk and block traffic on Mill Avenue." But, he argues, consequences should be stiffer when people's antics impede others ability to participate in the political process.

"That is corrosive to democracy," he said. "It's essential that people can hear and question presidential candidates in order to make good voting decisions."

The legislative session is wrapping up so Kavanagh proposed the change as an amendment to House Bill 2548, which seeks to protect university students' right to free speech.

Protesters at Donald Trump's Fountain Hills rally in March carried signs that read "Dump Trump" and "Stand Against Racism."
Protesters at Donald Trump's Fountain Hills rally in March carried signs that read "Dump Trump" and "Stand Against Racism."
Elizabeth Stuart

Opponents contend that increasing the penalty would violate protesters' First Amendment rights and criminalize civil disobedience. 

Kavanagh's response: "If they stand on the side of the road and yell, that's exercising their First Amendment rights. The First Amendment doesn't give them the right to block other people from exercising their free speech by attending a political rally."

Protesters parked a pair of trucks sideways on Shea Boulevard in March, blocking the main artery leading into Fountain Hills, where about 1,500 Trump supporters had gathered to listen to the Republican front runner.

Traffic was backed up for miles, Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Deputy Joaquin Enriquez reported. In an attempt to circumvent the protesters, some motorists drove into oncoming traffic.  

Three protesters who tied themselves to their vehicles to delay police attempts to clear the road were arrested.

After they'd been hauled off, dozens of protesters, carrying signs that read "Dump Trump" and "Shut down Trump," formed a human wall across the highway. 

Protesters at Donald Trump's rally in Fountain Hills compared the Republican presidential candidate to Adolf Hitler.
Protesters at Donald Trump's rally in Fountain Hills compared the Republican presidential candidate to Adolf Hitler.
Elizabeth Stuart
Senator John Kavanagh's bill would increase the penalty for blocking traffic from 30 days to 6 months in jail.
Senator John Kavanagh's bill would increase the penalty for blocking traffic from 30 days to 6 months in jail.
Elizabeth Stuart

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