In Defense of Public Protest

People protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline march past San Francisco City Hall. Source: Pax Ahimsa Gethen.

The recent wave of anti-protest bills is troubling. In a clear reaction to the Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock movements, state legislators are proposing exorbitant fines and prison sentences for activists who engage in so-called “economic disruption” or trespassing at “critical infrastructure,” and especially for getting in the way of car traffic.

For example, bills in Minnesota would lead to gross misdemeanor charges against activists who block highway, airport, or public transit access points, and even allow cities to sue them over the cost of policing their protests. In Iowa, a new bill could lead to 5-year prison sentences for protesters who obstruct traffic. In Florida, another bill would not only criminalize protests that block traffic but also limit the liability of drivers who hit protesters in the street.

Gehl Institute strongly condemns such efforts to limit free speech in the public realm, and calls on other organizations that do work in public space to do the same.

The ability to protest in public is fundamental to democracy. As we have written elsewhere, cities should be carving out more accessible spaces for civic action, where crowds can gather to make their voices heard. Protests often spill onto city streets, temporarily affecting car traffic flows as an act of civic disobedience. In many communities, there aren’t enough gathering spaces for civic expression. To try to dissuade such activism and limit the robustness of civic life by making protesters more susceptible to jail time and bodily harm is simply the wrong course of action.