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Should you be fined for making a loud noise at a public meeting?

Salt Lake police and Utah Highway Patrol troopers force protesters out of the Chamber of Commerce Building at 175 E. 400 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 9, 2019.
Salt Lake police and Utah Highway Patrol troopers force protesters out of the Chamber of Commerce Building at 175 E. 400 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 9, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, says his bill isn’t necessarily aimed at protesters who incessantly try to disrupt meetings of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board.

That’s OK. As long as it applies to those meetings, it will do.

With a couple of tweaks, that is.

When the board tried to meet in October it sounded like a convention of referees. Dozens of protesters sat wearing surgical masks, underneath which many of them had whistles in their mouths. They blew these like police officers trying to stop purse snatchers. Utah Highway Patrol troopers had trouble locating which protesters were tooting and which were sitting quietly.

Maybe they hoped to gain protection as whistleblowers.

The time before that, in July, protesters stormed the Chamber of Commerce Building, where the meeting was held, and clashed with police. Charging documents said they chanted expletives at police and physically assaulted some of them, although the protesters took issue with those accounts. Afterward, cleanup crews found fresh human waste, to put it delicately, in the building, and some unidentified substance smeared on the windows.

And the specific talking points against the port? No one remembers. Once you use a building as a toilet, arguments seem to fly out the window.

So now Ipson is sponsoring a bill that would provide stiff penalties for disrupting a public meeting, making each repeat offense more costly. He told reporters this week that the inland port’s recent meetings were not the main purpose for the bill.

“We just want to promote civility,” he said, adding that safety is also a concern.

He’s got the right idea, but his bill may be a bit too harsh to first-time offenders.

Ipson’s bill would make even the first “minor violation” an infraction. This is identified as a “single loud outburst, absent other disruptive conduct, that does not exceed five seconds in length.” Get your stopwatch ready.

The second minor violation would be a class C misdemeanor, which includes the possibility of up to 90 days in jail and a $750 fine. A third minor violation would put you in the range of possibly six months in jail and/or a fine of $1,000.

Blow your whistle longer than five seconds the first time and you would immediately jump into the class C misdemeanor range and move up from there.

The idea is good.

People have the right to express their disdain for official acts and to criticize without punishment. Together with state open meetings requirements, this gives leaders few places to hide, and with good reason. It’s part of what defines American freedom and accountability.

But the First Amendment to the Constitution, the one that guarantees free speech, wasn’t intended to let people blow whistles so loudly that public bodies can’t do any work at all.

I just wish he would go a little easier on people who might spontaneously express displeasure.

I’ve been in meetings where people have booed or shouted after a member of a board or city council said something provocative, then became quiet again after a warning. Do we really want to issue tickets to these people?

Police might have worn out their pencils under this proposed law at recent hearings to locate a homeless shelter or at a town hall meeting held by a member of Congress. I doubt that would have enhanced the level of civility.

Make the first offense a warning, and allow a warning from the person in charge of the meeting to suffice. Then start the progressive penalties after that, for those who persist in trying to disrupt.

As I’ve said before, there are legitimate reasons to criticize the inland port, which is trying to set up a distribution center along the Wasatch Front that would accept foreign goods via truck, air and rail.

But in an age when anyone can start a podcast or use dozens of other ways to express their opinions to potentially millions of people, protesters should be punished for deliberately and persistently trying to hold public bodies hostage.