Idaho House Bill 195 deserves a big “Say what?” It would criminalize picketing or demonstrations on a public street or sidewalk in front of a residence “with the intent to harass, annoy or alarm another person.”

As drafted, the bill wouldn’t withstand legal scrutiny because it is too broad to conform with U.S. Supreme Court standards for free speech when it comes into conflict with residential tranquility.

Eleven legislators who voted to print the bill are upset about protests that occurred outside homes of public officials.

The protests were upsetting. They were not pretty nor civil.

One was extremely noisy and held at night in front of a health official’s home where children were alone. Another, in front of a legislator’s home, ended with a stuffed animal emblazoned with the legislator’s name hung in a noose.

They inevitably attracted the ire of legislators upset that protestors would target an individual’s home.

Yet, try as they may, legislators cannot set aside the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects free speech and “the right of people to peaceably assemble.” They cannot set aside a Supreme Court decision that held that all protests on public streets in residential areas may not be banned.

The Constitution doesn’t demand silence from protestors. It doesn’t prohibit annoyance or alarm.

The key word in the First Amendment is “peaceably.” It doesn’t countenance bomb throwing, smashing windows or other kinds of vandalism. It doesn’t condone harm done to others.

If enacted, the poorly drafted HB 195 would harm the rights of citizens and invite a slam-dunk lawsuit to overturn it.

As with the Legislature’s growing list of other legal misadventures, taxpayers would get stuck with a large and unnecessary bill to defend a law that legislators know will not pass legal muster.

The bill is political theater intended to decry boorish protestors. It would punish protestors for making decisionmakers uncomfortable in their homes. It would shut them up in the name of not discouraging people from public service.

The dismay and concern are understandable, but HB 195 goes too far because it could be used to eliminate all protests in all residential neighborhoods. Doing so would be unconstitutional.

It would punish those guilty of what the proposed law calls “targeted residential picketing” with up to six months of jail time, a fine of up to $1,000 or both. It would leave protestors with a criminal record.

The law would unreasonably suppress free speech. In exchange, the bill would ensure that public officials and their families always feel comfortable in their homes.

That’s not a fair exchange.

Legislators have better ways to express their displeasure. They could draft a narrow bill. They could use their public pulpits to condemn incivility. They could ensure that public hearings are well publicized, accessible and give citizens adequate time to present arguments before state leaders.

The full Legislature should shut down the box office on this piece of political theater and give HB 195 the hook.


“Our View” represents the opinion of the newspaper editorial board, which is made up of members of its board of directors. Remarks may be directed to editorialboard@mtexpress.com.

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