Utah lawmakers move to outlaw protests at residential properties after anti-maskers targeted private homes

The bill would make “targeted residential picketing” a class B misdemeanor and prohibit protests of private residences.

(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. A new bill moving through the state Legislature would make "targeted residential picketing" a class B misdemeanor.

After anti-maskers staged protests at several Utah public officials’ homes this summer, several municipalities along the Wasatch Front passed new rules barring protests that target a private residence.

Now, a Utah lawmaker wants to extend that prohibition statewide.

A bill from Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, would prohibit “targeted residential picketing” — or a protest that’s specifically directed at a residence or its occupants — unless the demonstration takes place 100 feet or more away from the property line of the person’s home.

“This isn’t about a given elected official; it’s not about ideology,” Wilcox told the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice committee on Tuesday. “This is about Utah. How we want to live. How we want to interact with one another. What are the rules that we put around our own behavior?”

Under the bill, violations of the provision would constitute a class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail. That matches the penalty adopted by several municipalities that prohibit targeted protests at residential homes.

HB291, which passed unanimously on Tuesday, comes as elected officials and state employees alike saw their homes targeted by demonstrations last summer that were organized by Utahns frustrated with coronavirus restrictions. Protesters picketed former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s home in Orem, Gov. Spencer Cox’s in Fairview and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn’s in Salt Lake City.

Orem adopted a residential picketing ordinance last summer, and Spanish Fork and Lehi quickly followed. Municipalities like Salt Lake City and Holladay have had these rules on the books for over a decade.

Lauren Simpson, policy director for the progressive Alliance for a Better Utah, says the state saw anti-mask protesters “cross a line” when they showed up outside public officials’ homes. But she argued that the penalties in this bill were too harsh.

“In the long run, putting people in jail or into the criminal punishment system won’t help keep our community safer,” she said. “So while we’re supportive of the general purpose of this bill and do want to see it go forward in some iteration, we hope that this committee would consider downgrading the punishment attached.”

Since he released his bill, Wilcox said he’s been “inundated” with emails from people who misunderstand the proposal and believe it would unfairly single out public officials for special protections. But while demonstrations against them may have served as the impetus for the bill, he said the legislation would protect “each of us equally.”

“This applies [to] something as small as the director of a charter school to a private business owner from a competitor who didn’t like something he’d done at his business, to any number of other instances from the private sector,” he said.

The bill wouldn’t apply in cases where someone stages a demonstration at their own home or to picketing at a meeting place or assembly area “commonly used to discuss subjects of general public interest.” Protests that weave their way through residential neighborhoods would not be affected by the proposal.

Wilcox’s bill also does not apply to residences that are being used “as a targeted occupant’s sole place of business or as a place of public meeting.”

Several people who spoke against the proposal during public comment noted that access to elected officials has been limited amid the coronavirus pandemic and argued that a protest at a private residence, while a last resort, should remain an option.

“I’ve heard instances of several public officials that have refused to take calls, emails or any form of contact, and so this is really in many ways the only way we can get in contact with those people, so I think it’s important to be able to allow that,” said Justin Jamison.

In response to those concerns, Wilcox countered that there remain “many ways, frankly more effective means,” to voice concern to public officials “than to go and harass my family this weekend at their house.”

Other opponents of the bill voiced concern that it would limit a person’s First Amendment right to protest.

But the U.S. Constitution’s protection of demonstrations is not limitless. The Supreme Court previously upheld a municipal ordinance that banned picketing in front of a particular residence in Frisby v. Shultz, a 1988 decision that stemmed from a challenge by anti-abortion protesters of a Brookfield, Wis., ordinance. And lawmakers said this bill is similarly “narrowly tailored.”

The legislation still allows protests beyond 100 feet of a private property line, noted Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper.

“I think that’s a reasonable request,” he said, encouraging opponents to “put yourselves in that position where your family, your kids, your wife, your spouse is inside that home.”

Kendle Zdunich with the Utah Public Employees Association spoke in favor of the bill, arguing that those who supply “essential services” to the state should be able to do so “without fear.”

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, also expressed support for the bill, detailing her own experiences with harassment because of legislation she runs that often relates to women’s issues.

“I had to get an alarm system in my house,” she said. “And this last session because people didn’t believe they had to wear masks, I had someone harassing me on my phone and then when I finally answered the phone threatened me and I had to file a police report. So I would not want a public servant to go through the things I’ve had to go through because somebody didn’t agree with me.”

“It’s OK to respectfully disagree,” she added. “But when you get to the point where you make someone feel like they’re in danger or their family [is], I have no tolerance for it.”

The bill received unanimous support on Tuesday and now moves to the full House for further consideration.