Free Assembly on the Minnesota Governor’s Desk, and at a Crossroads

With the passage of an amended public safety bill last Monday, the Minnesota House of Representatives have thrust the Gopher State to the fore of a national pandemic of bills attacking our human right to freedom of peaceful assembly. By last count, Republicans in 19 states have proposed 28 anti-protest bills, some indemnifying motorists who strike protesters with their cars, others applying anti-racketeering laws to protest organizers.

In Minnesota, this charge has been lead by Representative Nick Zerwas of Elk River, who has fashioned himself an authority on how and where first amendment rights are “legal”. Due to the partisan recklessness of Rep. Zerwas and his colleagues in Saint Paul, Minnesota has the dubious distinction of pushing some of those 28 anti-protest bills farthest down the field. By vetoing these bills, Governor Mark Dayton can also stop this nationwide momentum against peaceful assembly.

Under the public safety bill, someone protesting on a freeway can be charged with a gross misdemeanor. That’s $3,000 or a year in jail. Another Zerwas bill still in committee would allow local governments to sue organizers and protesters for the costs incurred by a vaguely-defined “unlawful assembly”.

Neither bill addresses a problem faced by the people of Minnesota. Like most of their counterparts in other states, these cynical bills are designed to raise the stakes of protesting so high that it dissuades even the most ardent protesters from joining assembly.

The freedom of peaceful assembly is an American tradition. Public demonstration was the revolution before 1776. To “peaceably assemble” was as important to the founding fathers as religion, speech and press. It has been a catalyst for the advancement of civil rights for over two hundred years of American history. Free assembly is also a gift to the world community, the only internationally recognized human right with American origins.

Distinct from speech, free assembly represents an individual’s public presence as expression, one’s body as voice. And when, where, and how individuals make themselves present is fundamental to that expression. It’s messy because it is democracy. Fully realized democracy can be disorderly and inconvenient, including for motorists on the freeway and local sanitation teams.

Public demonstrations are the power of the powerless. Assembly is how the voice of a minority rises to the halls of power. When Black Lives Matter demonstrators took over I-94 last summer, their message was, “Stop shooting us.” When a freeway is blocked, the government is supposed to take notice, but to take notice of the grievance, not the manner of grieving.

Peaceful assemblies are already constrained by bureaucratic permitting processes, fees, insurance requirements as well as time, place, and manner restrictions. Sadly, the calculus of whether a protest will be “worth it” is becoming more difficult. The cost-benefit analysis becomes impossible once local governments in Minnesota can send a protest organizer a bill of any amount. Protest will be reduced to a husk in Minnesota.

Governor Mark Dayton will soon be called upon to weigh on at least one of these bills. He will be the first Democratic governor to receive one of these anti-protest bills on his desk. Dayton has yet to take a strong stand against these bills but it is gravely important that he do so.

If these bills become law in Minnesota, they are certain to be challenged in the courts eventually, if not the moment the ink dries. However, if a Democratic governor signs them into law, other states with more conservative leadership will be emboldened to pass their own anti-protest bills. And more may still be proposed.

Or Governor Dayton can take a zero-tolerance stance by threatening to veto any bill that increases penalties on protesters. A veto threat, accompanied by a full-throated defense of the role free assembly plays in the advancement of the American dream, will slow the steady erosion of America’s first amendment rights. For a prominent national leader of a purple state to make an unambiguous statement against this anti-protest fetish of Trump’s party will send a powerful message to the rest of the United States: our freedom to peaceably assemble is non-negotiable.