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Arizona Republicans want to apply racketeering law to protests. Can someone introduce them to the 1st Amendment?

Arizona Republicans want to apply racketeering law to protests. Can someone introduce them to the 1st Amendment?
Protesters stand among Donald Trump supporters during a presidential campaign rally on March 19, 2016, in Fountain Hills, Ariz. (Matt York / Associated Press)

How's this for a laughable — were it not so serious — proposed law? Arizona legislators want to make organizers and participants in planned peaceful protests subject to racketeering laws if violence erupts during the event. It would place protest organizers in the same league as organized crime figures and allow the government to seize the organizers' and protesters' assets — and possibly arrest them before the event if police believe violence might occur.

Hey, Arizona, let me introduce you to the 1st Amendment.

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The impetus for this bit of stupidity apparently is the false idea —  fake news! — embraced by so many on the right, including President Trump and his spokesman, Sean Spicer, that people protesting the Trump administration and Republican members of Congress are paid to be there. No, the protesters say, they’re happily volunteering their time and lung-power.

The Republicans are correct about one thing: The protests are organized. But contrary to the GOP talking point, that doesn’t give them less legitimacy. It gives them more potency. Organized opposition to this administration’s dangerous policies is how the system is supposed to work. As The Times editorial board wrote recently, political protest is as American as a naturalized citizen.

“It is a fundamental principle of American democracy that the policies and statements of a president — any president — should and must be second-guessed by citizens, experts, artists, stakeholders and, of course, the media. Political protest is part of the lifeblood of American democracy, from the Boston Tea Party to the modern-day tea party to the Women’s March on Washington last month.”

And squelching peaceful is as democratic as, well, fill in the name of your favorite autocratic regime.

The Republicans are correct about one thing: The protests are organized. But contrary to the GOP talking point, that doesn’t give them less legitimacy.


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This isn't to argue that violent protests are defensible. They aren't. They achieve little (maybe personal catharsis for some) and erode public support from more sympathetic folks repelled by violence and property damage.

Such actions also invite violent repression by the police, again obscuring the point of the protest in the smoke of exploding tear gas canisters. Anarchists and their ilk aside, protest organizers rarely are interested in a violent confrontation.

To make the organizers, and peaceful protesters who join in to exercise their 1st Amendment right, responsible for the criminal acts of others is as silly as it is draconian. That's like arresting all the customers in a bank because one of them decided to rob it.

In fact, the Supreme Court has already ruled against a somewhat-related argument under which pro-choice advocates sued anti-abortion groups on grounds that raucous protests outside abortion clinics violated federal racketeering laws.

It's hard to envision even a conservative – or maybe, especially a conservative – Supreme Court letting stand a state law that holds people responsible for the unforeseen criminals acts of others, who may in fact be strangers to the organizers, and who may be acting under the proposed law to undermine their opponents.

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see a scenario in which an anti-deportation protest turns violent with the arrival of a few pro-deportation folks tossing rocks through windows. Or, conversely, to see civil rights activists sweeping through a pro-police rally just to torch a car and watch the government jail and seize assets from those whose intent was to stand up for law and order.

Arizona needs to back down and save itself a lot of headaches, and the time and cost it will take to defend an indefensible law.

Follow my posts and re-tweets at @smartelle on Twitter

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