Protesters repeatedly found guilty of disrupting public meetings would face stiffer penalties under a bill that passed the Utah Senate on Thursday.
The proposal cleared the Senate by a unanimous vote after a couple Democratic lawmakers questioned its sponsor, Sen. Don Ipson, about whether it would have a chilling effect on public expression or put officials at risk of being sued for restricting speech.
“They have every right in the world to free speech," Ipson, R-St. George, said of protesters. "They don’t have the right to disrupt the meeting to the point that it’s disorderly conduct.”
Ipson said the new prohibitions would cover town hall meetings organized by state lawmakers, in addition to other official government meetings.
A first offense would count as a class C misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $750. Repeat offenders would face higher penalties, of up to 364 days in jail and a $2,500 fine for third and subsequent violations.
Ipson has said his bill is “not necessarily” motivated by the recent, disruptive protests targeting the development of an inland port in Salt Lake City.
The legislation, SB173, now moves to the House for consideration.