Minnesota Lawmaker Launches Possibly Unconstitutional Attempt To Curtail Black Lives Matter Protesters

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Mone

Black Lives Matter protesters and supporters march from the Minneapolis Police Department's Fourth Precinct to the Federal Building in Minneapolis, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. The fatal shooting of Jamar Clark, a black man, by a Minneapolis police officer, has pushed racial tensions in the city's small but concentrated minority community to the fore, with the police precinct besieged by the makeshift encampment and many protesters.

Black Lives Matter protesters in Minnesota have shut down the Mall of America twice, blocked an interstate highway near downtown Minneapolis, occupied part of the airport, and camped outside a police precinct in north Minneapolis. The protests were sparked in part by the 2014 deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of police officers and rekindled late last year after Minneapolis resident Jamar Clark was shot and killed during an altercation with cops.

Black Lives Matter helped stimulate a discussion about racial inequities in Minnesota, but some oppose the tactic of shutting down shutting down public roads and police precincts. In an attempt to deter those sorts of protests in the future, Republican Rep. Nick Zerwas has introduced a bill that makes protesters civilly liable for law enforcement costs if they refuse to disperse when ordered to do so and end up being arrested and convicted of a crime. The ACLU, however, says the proposal is unconstitutional.

Rep. Nick Zerwas

Rep. Nick Zerwas

Zerwas told ThinkProgress his bill isn’t targeted toward any specific group, but is aimed at “individuals who go into a situation to try and disrupt and destroy and block commercial activity with the intent of drawing a large police response and then being arrested.”

“Local jurisdictions would have the ability to recoup costs,” he added. “If this is the new thing where once a month a [protest] happens, we can’t possibly expect our property tax payers to pay for it.”

In a statement about the bill, Zerwas noted that the additional police presence deployed in response to Black Lives Matter’s Mall of America protest in late 2014 cost more than $25,000. He hopes his bill “will save taxpayers money if such unlawful protests occur in the future.”

But ACLU of Minnesota Executive Director Chuck Samuelson argues the proposal will have a chilling effect on free speech.

“What’s to say you don’t simply deny protest permits?” Samuelson told ThinkProgress. “So if your city doesn’t like Black Lives Matter — doesn’t want ‘those people’ protesting — then you just deny them the right to protest, arrest them, charge them with illegal demonstration, and go after the individuals and the groups… driving those groups out of the public sphere is wrong and it’s unconstitutional.”

Samuelson’s perspective is seconded by Mike German, fellow at NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice.

“If those who organize face a risk of heavy financial penalties, that would clearly create an unconstitutional burden on their assembly rights,” German told ThinkProgress. “It seems very circular in its reasoning. It would give the police a veto over any protest they don’t like, because all they would have to do is overreact and declare it unlawful, and therefore suppress that sort of activity.”

In addition to constitutional concerns, Zerwas’ bill would place a financial burden on protesters that police officers don’t face when confronted with credible accusations of misconduct. Offending officers almost never have to contribute their own money to city settlements with their victims, even when they are ordered to pay punitive damages meant to hold them accountable. Instead, the tab gets picked up by taxpayers or an insurer. From 2010 through early last year, the city of Minneapolis alone paid out $10.7 million for officer conduct lawsuits, an amount that dwarfs the costs associated with policing protests.

Even if Zerwas’ bill makes it through Minnesota’s Republican-controlled legislature, it likely wouldn’t be signed into law by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. Dayton has expressed support for Black Lives Matter’s push to address racial inequalities and last month asked MSP Airport officials not to press charges against protesters who demonstrated at the airport last December.