Amend this BAD BILL that would inhibit free speech and protesting! (SB 173)

Ask your state representative to vote NO on SB 173!

Existing Utah criminal code prohibits the the disruption of a lawful meeting by “physical action, verbal utterance, or any other means”. However, in the wake of recent protests targeting the development of an Inland Port in 2019, SB 173 attempts to bring more ‘civility’ and safety to public meetings by creating new penalties for individuals protesting at the State Capitol or near meetings of government officials.

Under existing Utah law, it is a class B misdemeanor to “disrupt” a meeting, which requires that a person “obstruct” or “interfere” with the meeting with the intention of preventing it. This law is already problematic for its vagueness and violation of free speech.

While it is valiant that SB 173 attempts to encourage civility, this bill perpetuates vague and unconstitutional code, expands the scope of the law and increases the range of penalties. Even a “single, loud outburst, absent other disruptive conduct, that does not exceed five seconds in length,” would be punishable as a class C, B or A misdemeanor, punishable with jail time and monetary fines. Rather than encouraging civility, SB 173 would have a chilling effect on public discourse.

Simply scroll down and click “Start Writing” to email legislators now. 

What would SB 173  do?

SB 173 modifies the criminal elements of disturbing the legislature or an official meeting and assesses the penalties for the violation of this bill by:

  • Lowering the threshold for official meeting disruption to include any “single, loud outburst, absent other disruptive conduct, that does not exceed five seconds in length”.
  • Criminalizing “disorderly conduct” in the presence of the legislature or other official meeting.
  • Establishing guidelines for penalty of these interruptions either as a class C misdemeanor for a first offense (punishable with up to 90 days in jail and a $750 fine), a class B misdemeanor for a second offense (punishable with up to 6 months jail time and a $1,000 fine), or a class A misdemeanor for a third or subsequent offense (punishable with up to 1 year in jail and a $2,500 fine).

Utah law defines “disorderly conduct” very broadly; the offense can comprise as little as “making unreasonable noises in a public place” with the intent of causing annoyance, or refusing to leave a public place when asked to by law enforcement. Accordingly, silent protesters who refused to leave a public hearing could apparently be covered.

While the it is valiant that the sponsors for SB 173 to encourage civility, the reality is that the bill sends the message that elected officials do not want to hear from constituents and that attempts to speak up may be punishable by jail time and fines.
An amendment was made to add a warning prior to a first offense, but the bill remains overly vague and overly vindictive. Contact your House legislator NOW and ask them to support amendments to this bill or to study it during Interim for a better solution that does not discourage community input!
(Remember to personalize your comments for the greatest impact! Why do YOU support this proposal?)

  • SB 173 should be amended to ensure this bill does not inhibit free speech and civic engagement – Please support an amendment on the House floor to clearly define what behavior would be punished, reduce the highest penalty from a class A misdemeanor to a class B misdemeanor and create a cap on the amount of time that a prior offense can be considered in determining punishments for later offenses. These amendments, at a minimum, are necessary to ensure this bill does not have a chilling effect on free speech and civic engagement that is crucial to good policy making and the strength of our democracy. Without these amendments, this bill should be tabled and considered for study during Interim.
  • SB 173 would have a chilling effect on free speech and civic engagement – Our country was founded on the principles of democracy, including the freedom of speech. Speech is what allows citizens to be engaged in the civic process to address public problems. Data shows that communities with stronger indicators of civic engagement have lower unemployment rates, better physical health, stronger schools and more responsive government. However, SB 173 would have a chilling effect on civic engagement, causing people to fear speaking up and engaging in the public discourse.
  • SB 173 is overly punitive – A third offense of “disrupting” a public meeting would be punished in an equivalent way to a domestic violence offense or a DUI. This punishment is overly punitive for behavior that could amount to shouting or silently protesting in a meeting.
  • SB 173 sends the wrong message to the public – A recent Y2 Poll shows that 62% of Utahns said their legislators pay “very little attention” or “no attention at all” to what an individual voter may think, even if the voter takes the trouble to actually speak personally with their lawmaker. SB 173 perpetuates the public perception that lawmakers do not want to hear from constituents and do not welcome public input in the political process.
  • SB 173 is unconstitutional – The participation of citizens in public meetings is essential to our democracy, even if their views are unpopular with public officials. As a general rule, the government cannot ban speech — including public protests — because of the protest’s “content,” or subject matter. SB 173 violates the First Amendment. A law is “unconstitutional” on its face if it prohibits a substantial amount of protected expression.
  • SB 173 is vague – The intentional broadness of the bill language does not provide standards for applying those terms, encouraging arbitrary enforcement against any conduct that public officials may not like. This creates an invitation to viewpoint discrimination that is unconstitutional and contrary to participatory democracy.
  • SB 173 is unenforceable – Similar laws, some even narrower, have been struck down in other states. SB 173 cannot be constitutionally enforced and simply invites expensive litigation. Instead of passing an unconstitutional law, the law should be repealed.
How to make sure your letter is successful:

  1. Use a clear and specific subject heading.
  2. Start with a salutation (“Dear …”).
  3. Be CIVIL, PERSONAL and as CONCISE as possible.
  4. Mention that you are a CONSTITUENT and include your full address with zip code.
  5. Sign your name at the end.

Write Your Letter Here

One Comment

  1. David Adams March 9, 2020 at 3:45 pm

    I urge you to vote NO on this bill. It is unnecessary, will not accomplish ‘more civility’ and simply quash free speech from anyone who opposes the predominant political members and their agenda. This is likely unconstitutional and with the proclaimers sanctity Utah republicans take that document this looks quite surprising. Do not pass this.

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