The ACLU of Washington says GOP state Sen. Jim Honeyford’s proposal is unconstitutional. The First Amendment protects an individual’s right to wear a mask in public, the ACLU says.
OLYMPIA — Protesters wearing masks or hoods during demonstrations could be charged with a crime, if one GOP state senator has his way.
The bill by state Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, arrives as similar laws are being considered in other states, including Georgia, Missouri and Montana.
SB 5941 would make it illegal for someone to stand on a sidewalk, road or any public ground with their face covered, unless that person was exempted for religious or myriad other reasons spelled out in the bill.
If a person were to wear a mask on someone else’s property, they would need to first get written permission from the landowner, according to the bill.
Introduced Monday, Honeyford’s proposal is aimed at “a small but dangerous group of individuals who conceal their identities while committing illegal acts under the guise of political protest,” SB 5941 says.
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Honeyford said he first considered such legislation after Seattle’s tumultuous 1999 World Trade Organization protests.
But recent May Day demonstrations in Portland and Olympia prompted him to draft the bill, which would make it a gross misdemeanor to wear a mask or hood. Several demonstrators wore masks at those protests, where violence erupted.
“I really believe that people, when they hide their identity, are more likely to commit a crime,” Honeyford said.
The proposal comes with a slew of exceptions. Among others, it wouldn’t apply to people covering their faces for religious reasons. It exempts skiers, snowboarders and others engaged in sports from covering up in adverse weather.
Also excluded are people going to masquerade balls or celebrating Mardi Gras, those using a mask for work, or covering up as part of a “traditional holiday costume.”
The legislation wouldn’t apply to anyone under the age of 16.
The exemptions show the bill is designed to target protesters, which is unconstitutional, argued Elisabeth Smith with the ACLU of Washington.
“The First Amendment actually protects people’s right to wear a mask in public” at demonstrations, said Smith, a legislative director for the organization.
“It’s clear that the impetus is to criminalize protest behavior,” Smith added.
Earlier this month in Olympia, police arrested nine people after May Day demonstrators smashed windows and threw rocks at officers.
Officers are still investigating and may make more arrests soon, said Olympia Police Lt. Paul Lower.
In Seattle, protesters at May Day and other demonstrations also have worn masks, including those depicting Guy Fawkes, who plotted and failed to blow up England’s House of Lords in 1605.
Lawmakers in several other states this year have introduced anti-mask legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
The governor of North Dakota recently signed a bill into law that makes it illegal to wear a mask while committing a crime or to threaten someone.
NCSL doesn’t track how many states already have anti-mask laws, though Honeyford said they number about a dozen.
Many of the laws are rooted in the early 20th century, as governments responded to a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, whose members wore hoods during their rallies.
Earlier this year state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, introduced a bill that would make it a crime for protesters to cause economic disruption, such blocking railroad tracks or a roadway.
Ericksen’s proposal did not get a hearing, much less a vote, in either chamber of the Legislature.
Honeyford’s bill comes on the second-to-last day of a special legislative session, where lawmakers are preoccupied with K-12 school funding and writing a new state budget.
A second special session is expected to convened.