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Members of the New Mexico Legislature recounted threats to their own personal safety Monday, March 8, in voting to support legislation that would make it illegal to protest outside a person’s home.
House Bill 223 would make it a misdemeanor to picket within 100 feet of the residence of the person being targeted. It passed the House Judiciary Committee on an 8-4 vote and is now eligible for a vote by the full House.
Sponsor Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said the bill was motivated by an incident in his town. An elderly couple drew regular protests for flying a flag in their yard, he said. Those protesters then attracted counter-protesters, who showed up armed.
“You can see how this could have, all of a sudden, escalated into something very dangerous,” he said.
Rep. Micaela Cadena, D-Mesilla, said even though lawmakers are allowed to participate in the legislative session from home this year because of the pandemic, she opted to travel to Santa Fe instead because she feels safer. Cadena is vice chair of the House Judiciary Committtee.
“I wanted to make sure that folks looking for me were looking for me here at the capitol,” she said. “It’s scary. I certainly am a big believer in First Amendment rights, but I also believe that we, as elected officials, have room to survive our office and deserve a reasonable expectation of safety.”
She said the virtual sessions being conducted this year behind a fenced-in Roundhouse are a relief, because they make legislators harder to find. The fencing was erected before the session in response to threats at state capitols throughout the country.
“One of the small silver linings for me that comes with this virtual session, it means I feel safer in my day-to-day life,” Cadena said. “Folks who would potentially try to follow me out of the building, or see when I’m leaving an event, don’t have an opportunity to do so. That’s meant I don’t spend as much time this year looking over my shoulder to see if there is an imminent threat following me.”
Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, said she used to publish her address to be more accessible to constituents. But two years ago people came onto her property to post signs while she was in Santa Fe but her family was inside the house. Now, she has switched to a post office box and keeps her information private.
“This year I had police around while those bills were being heard,” she said.
But Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, objected to portraying all protests as threatening. He said there are already laws on the books against trespassing and assault, and it should not be against the law to stand outside somebody’s house and hold up a sign.
“All we’re doing here is just limiting somebody’s First Amendment right to free speech in a certain location,” Cook said.
Much of the discussion involved the legal definitions of residence and picketing, and possible unintended consequences. Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, noted that the bill, if adopted, would make it illegal to protest on public property if the street was within 100 feet of the house being targeted.
He asked if it would be legal to have a march down Main Street protesting the mayor if the mayor happened to live on Main Street. It would be, as long as the protesters don’t linger in front of the house, Harper said.
Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, said the 100-foot prohibition would have a much different impact depending on the size of the property. For those protesting outside of his house, it would put them in his neighbor’s yard, he said. But for someone like Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, who owns an enormous ranch, anyone protesting 100 feet from the property line would be miles away from her home.
And, he wondered how the rule would apply to those living in apartment buildings. Would it be 100 feet from the building, or from the specific apartment?
House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, noted that a similar ordinance was passed in his community in the 1970s following incidents in which union workers were protesting outside the homes of city council members during a strike. In a 1974 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the local ordinance.
Townsend said he was concerned that a new law would result in protesters following their targets in other places. He asked where protesters were supposed to go.
Townsend and the other three Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee all voted “no,” but all eight Democrats supported the bill.
Co-sponsor Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, said legislators would continue to work on clarifying language as the bill moves to a vote in the full House.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.