Does Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy's anti-protest bill violate the First Amendment?

Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy’s bill to make street protests without a permit illegal is being called unconstitutional and unnecessary by opponents. The Last Frontier is one of eight states without protest-related laws that restrict free assembly and speech in any form.

The bill was proposed in February in response to extended protests ranging from climate change to the Israel-Hamas War that have blocked roads in the rest of the country.

“This legislation ensures that our public spaces remain safe and accessible for all Alaskans,” said Dunleavy in a statement when the legislation was first introduced. “It is important to distinguish between peaceful expression of rights and actions that pose risks to public safety and emergency response efforts.”

However, the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee had a list of questions for Attorney General Treg Taylor on Wednesday about whether the bill would be policy-neutral, if it violated free speech and the right to assemble, and whether the proposed penalties, including a class C felony, which can result in five years in prison or a $50,000 fine, were justifiable and fair.

In his opening statement to the committee, Taylor suggested that it is common sense that higher consequences lead to greater deterrence. State Sen. Matt Claman (D-Anchorage) argued that criminological data and statistical reality don’t support the AG’s premise and that states with the death penalty tend to have higher murder rates.

“I grew up in the South in the 1960s, and the groups that were protesting the injustice to African Americans knew the consequences. They knew they were going to jail, and their plans were to fill up the jails; they needed to make that statement,” added the Democratic lawmaker.

Serene Rose O’Hara-Jolly, Alaska state director of Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates told the committee that the bill “appears to criminalize homelessness” and could be “weaponized by law enforcement.”

As for supporters of the bill, only one constituent sent a letter of support: “I am an Alaska resident ... and would like to see individuals exercise their constitutional rights in a manner safe to themselves and others, as well as hold individuals accountable for wrongdoing,’ wrote Tim Karl of Fairbanks.

“If city workers wanted a picket because their contract negotiations were going badly on the sidewalk in front of the city hall—there being no permit available—their picket automatically makes them guilty of a crime; that concerns me,” said Democratic state Sen. Jesse Keihl.

The bill will be held in the Senate Judiciary Committee until April 17, when additional public testimony will be heard.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy wants to limit street protests with new bill