Republican legislators in at least 18 states are advancing legislation that would criminalize mass protests just a month after millions of Americans took to the streets to denounce President Donald Trump.
State legislators from Virginia to Washington State have introduced or voted on bills to stiffen penalties for blocking highways and to increase sanctions for offenses related to rioting.
The measures in some states would ban the use of masks during protests and indemnify drivers who hit protesters with their vehicles.
Lawmakers are also seeking to give more power to law enforcement authorities to issue citations and fines by broadening the definition of trespassing.
Some legislators said they were taking steps to counter the actions of “professional” protesters who they claim are paid to create public disorder.
“You now have a situation where you have full-time, quasi-professional agent-provocateurs that attempt to create public disorder,” John Kavanagh, a Republican state senator from Arizona, was quoted as saying by The Washington Post.
The proposals come after a series of mass protests over issues such as police shootings of unarmed African Americans, the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, and the election of Trump, a billionaire businessman and former reality TV star, as president.
Other legislators, like the sponsors of a bill in Minnesota, said cracking down on protests that block highways was among their top priorities.
In states like Oklahoma and South Dakota, the measures are intended to penalize protests against oil pipelines. Senators in South Dakota, for example, have passed legislation that would allow the governor to establish a "safety zone" in emergency situations. Those who enter the zone would face penalty.
The restrictive measures have angered civil liberties experts who criticized them as “an attack on protest rights throughout the states.”
Lee Rowland, a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said the new bills were not introduced “because of some gap in the law.”
Rather, she argued the measures were meant to increase “the penalties for protest-related activity to the point that it results in self-censorship among protesters who have every intention to obey the law.”