Utah lawmaker says his anti-protest bill is meant to promote ‘civility’

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Utah Highway Patrol troopers remove a woman blowing a whistle through a surgical mask as the Utah Inland Port Authority meets for the first time since its June meeting was disrupted by protesters at the Utah Capitol on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019.

Disrupting the Utah Legislature or other government meetings would quickly escalate from a slap on the wrist to up to six months’ jail time under a bill that was made public Friday.

Sponsored by Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, SB173 makes it an infraction to intentionally cause a “minor" disruption at an official meeting — defined as “a single, loud outburst, absent other disruptive conduct, that does not exceed five seconds in length” — with more serious disruptions or multiple offenses rising to the level of a Class C or Class B misdemeanor.

“I’m just trying to bring civility, safety to public meetings,” Ipson said Monday.

Ipson, chairman and president of a freight trucking business, was pressed by reporters on Monday to elaborate on the motivations behind his bill — but he largely declined.

When asked by The Tribune if there were particular government functions he was working to protect, Ipson replied only “public meetings.” And he subsequently told a member of the media that his bill was “not necessarily” motivated by recent, disruptive protests targeting the development of an inland port in Salt Lake City.

A spokesman for the Senate later clarified that current law makes it a Class B misdemeanor to disrupt a government meeting, with Ipson’s legislation intended to create lesser penalties for smaller, first-time offenses. Amendments adjusting the different penalty levels are also under consideration.

For much of the last year, meetings of the Inland Port Authority Board have been met with organized resistance by opponents of the planned trading hub, which is expected to concentrate air, rail and truck freight in the northwest quadrant of the state’s capital.

Last summer, a massive anti-inland port demonstration turned violent and spilled out into the streets of Salt Lake City, leading to arrests as well as accusations of police brutality.

But on Monday, Senate leaders also alluded to an earlier demonstration at the state Capitol — in which 13 protesters were arrested after blocking a committee hearing — as a potential justification for the new bill.

“I think it’s been motivated by a lot of different discussions that we’ve had,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

David Newlin, an organizer with Utah Against Police Brutality, said Monday that he believes Ipson’s legislation is meant to tell the public to “sit down and shut up.” He also worried that the bill’s sliding-scale approach could see law enforcement handing out infractions “like candy” for minor disruptions.

“SB173 is an attempt to criminalize dissent and keep the public quiet while legislators and officials force us to accept whatever unjust, racist, or environmentally devastating project is on their agenda,” Newlin, a former Salt Lake Tribune employee, said. “'Civility' has always been a favorite cover for officials who don’t want to listen to the people standing up to say ‘No!’”