OGDEN — In the wake of the flurry of protesting last year that stemmed variously from calls for police reform and opposition to guidelines aimed at preventing COVID-19’s spread, Utah Rep. Ryan Wilcox noticed a trend.
The discourse at times seemed to veer off the rails, from civil dialogue to a sort of mob-rules mentality. He pointed to violent protests in Salt Lake City and elsewhere in the wake of the George Floyd killing last May and demonstrations last fall targeting public officials at their homes stemming from the state’s COVID-19 response.
There’s a big difference between petitioning the government for change “and crossing that limit into violence and intimidation and generally behaving poorly,” said the Republican lawmaker from Ogden.
Accordingly, at least three changes are in the works this legislative session aimed at reining in rioting and what Wilcox sees as over-the-top demonstrating, including a pair of measures he authored. One measure, House Bill 291, would prohibit picketing outside the homes of people targeted by protestors. It passed the House 71-1 on Tuesday and now goes to the Senate.
The other, H.B. 58, would more clearly define rioting and make it tougher for those charged with such action to secure quick release from jail. It passed the House 55-16 on Feb. 11 and now faces scrutiny in the Senate.
“This really isn’t about ideology at all,” said Wilcox, chairperson of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee and, as such, directly involved in the bills. “It’s simply setting the boundaries.”
That is, the aim of the legislation isn’t to hamper free speech, he said. Rather, the measures aim to keep efforts to exercise free speech from morphing into something altogether different — violence, destruction or undue intimidation. “Our civic dialogue is more important than ever. There’s a way to do that,” he said. “Protests are a hallmark of our democracy.”
Still, H.B. 58, in particular, has prompted skepticism from some.
The measure defines rioting, generally speaking, as assembling with two or more other people with the aim of engaging in violent conduct. The crime would be a Class B misdemeanor or, if someone else is seriously hurt or property is substantially damaged, a third-degree felony. Notably, those charged under its provisions would not be able to immediately post bail but, rather, would have to wait until appearing before a magistrate, delaying their release from jail and keeping them from rejoining a protest.
“This bill really grew out of some of the unrest that we saw over the summer, not with the protests themselves, but with some of the violent tone and actions that came out from those,” Wilcox said at a Feb. 4 hearing on the measure before the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.
Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon testified in favor of the measure, referencing his and his department’s efforts to help maintain order in Salt Lake City during the protests in the city last summer stemming from the Floyd death. He also noted his efforts to assist in maintaining order in Portland, Oregon, during violent protests there last summer, also stemming from Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officer. The Floyd killing also spurred protesting in Ogden, though it unfolded without major incident.
“This is not about protesters. There a clear line between protesters and riots in this case,” Arbon said.
That is, Arbon maintains that protests can be infiltrated by “criminals” bent on wreaking havoc, not making a political statement, and that such actors need to be handled differently than protestors, per the provisions of H.B. 58. Such “rioters,” after being arrested, sometimes immediately return to the scene of a demonstration on their release, causing more problems, and they, according to Wilcox, are the target of H.B. 58.
Such “catch-and-release” activity happened all over the country during protesting last summer, not just Utah, Wilcox said. H.B. 58, added Arbon, safeguards genuine protesters, law enforcement and businesses that otherwise could be the target of violence by demonstration infiltrators.
The measure, though, has its critics.
Molly Davis, a policy analyst for the Libertas Institute, a libertarian think tank in Lehi, worries that removing the right to post bail “sets a dangerous precedent.” Lex Scott, the leader of Black Lives Matter Utah, worries about the definition of a riot.
“I believe that the definition of a riot is too far-reaching. Two people, three people? That’s dangerous and especially when we have protests with over 30,000 people,” she said at the Feb. 4 hearing. Police, she worries, “would call something a riot when it was not a riot.”
H.B. 291 is, perhaps, less controversial. It stemmed in part from protesting last fall outside the homes of Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, and Joseph Miner, a top Utah Department of Health official, related to their calls for use of face coverings to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Their critics decry mask requirements as an infringement of their rights and overkill.
But Wilcox said the measure encompasses much more than protests over face coverings. He has heard cases of business operators facing protesting by competitors outside their homes. He’s heard of people involved in legislative proposals facing protesters at their homes. While not meaning to infringe on the right of free speech, he said private homes aren’t the place for such demonstrating.
“That’s what we’re talking about, protecting the peace and sanctity of the home,” Wilcox said.
Per the provisions of H.B. 291, protesters would have to stay at least 100 feet away from the home of their target. The measure would also prohibit dissemination of the home address of someone with the aim of spurring others to protest at their home. Violating the measure, if approved, would be a Class B misdemeanor.
Several Utah cities have passed similar measures, including officials in Centerville just last month. Wilcox said the language in H.B. 291 has passed U.S. Supreme Court muster.
Another proposal, Senate Bill 138, spells out criminal violations and consequences related to rioting. It would augment penalties for rioting, allow for denial of bail for those charged with rioting and more. Sen. Davis Hinkins, a Republican from Ferron, is the author of S.B. 138, which has yet to be voted on in committee.