Protesting outside private homes is off limits, Utah Legislature decides

HB291 comes in the wake of anti-mask picketing outside homes of Dr. Angela Dunn, others.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Protesters walk off after gathering in front of the home of Utah’s state epidemiologist, Dr. Angela Dunn, in Salt Lake City, Oct. 29, 2020. The Utah Senate passed a bill Thursday, March 4, 2021, that makes targeted residential picketing a class B misdemeanor.

After anti-mask protesters targeted state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn’s home in Salt Lake City last year and posted her address online, Utah lawmakers decided there should be limits on this type of residential picketing.

On Thursday, the state Senate voted 26-1 to pass HB291, which addresses situations like what happened outside Dunn’s house. After already passing the House, the bill is headed to the governor’s desk.

“We certainly don’t want to take away those First Amendment rights” of people “to say what they need to,” Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, one of the bill’s sponsors, told his colleagues Thursday. At the same time, “we want to be able to protect those involved,” the Republican from Cedar City said.

HB291 makes it a class B misdemeanor — punishable by up to a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail — to picket, with or without signs, at someone’s specific residence. Protesters cannot be on the sidewalk or street in front of the targeted residence, or of neighboring homes, and they need to be farther than 100 feet away from the property line.

Picketers can still stand on a commonly used area, such as corners, Vickers said. And the bill doesn’t apply to parades or marches in residential neighborhoods, he said.

HB291 also prohibits people from posting or publishing a person’s residential address “with the intent to cause another individual to engage in targeted residential picketing.”

“I was horrified, as I hope everyone was, when I saw what happened to Angela Dunn’s home,” Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said. “I was somewhat less horrified when I saw what was happening to former Gov. [Gary] Herbert’s home in Orem and former Lt. Gov. [Spencer] Cox’s home in Fairview.”

“I didn’t like it,” Weiler said, “but I felt like they ran for office, so maybe that was fair game.”

Weiler asked if the governor’s mansion would be exempt in HB291. Vickers said it would not, since his understanding is that it’s considered residential. People could still picket nearby the mansion in a common area, he said.

“I do think that the governor’s mansion is probably a fair target,” Weiler said. “I wouldn’t want people picketing if my family was living there. But I do think that that’s kind of a symbol of the state government.”

Weiler said he generally supported the bill, though, adding, “I think we need to draw the lines. I just hope we don’t draw them in the wrong places.”

Like Weiler, Sen. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork, voted in favor of HB291, saying “it’s necessary.” Before the session began, McKell said Salem’s mayor reached out to him about “a militia group” that gathered in front of the mayor’s home.

Salem Mayor Kurt Christensen confirmed Saturday that this occurred earlier this year. People showed up outside his home when his family members were there, but he wasn’t, which was “scary,” he said. It was related to a civil property dispute that the mayor and the city are not involved in, according to Christiensen.

After the targeted protests outside Utah public officials’ homes last year, several municipalities along the Wasatch Front, including Orem, Spanish Fork and Lehi, passed new rules barring these targeted demonstrations. Salt Lake City and Holladay already had these rules in place.

HB291 “does not favor a certain class of people,” such as elected officials, Weiler said. Instead, it covers everyone, he said.

Sen. Luz Escamilla D-Salt Lake City, said the guidelines in the bill make sense and are “reasonable.”

“We live in a place that allows us to express ourselves, and that’s beautiful and wonderful,” Escamilla said. “But harassing sometimes can be scary. And certainly in their homes, you’re obviously impacting someone beyond the individual.”

She said, “It’s terrifying when your children are alone, and you just get a phone call, and you’re trying your best to get home as soon as possible to deal with a constituent that may be upset.”

As a public official, you understand you may receive backlash or scrutiny, Escamilla said. But state employees, like those targeted last year, don’t sign up to be harassed at that level, she said.

This bill “defines what kind of society we want to live in,” according to Vickers.