Proposal would make it illegal to disrupt a public meeting

Utah Capitol 20

A state senator has introduced a bill that would make it a Class B misdemeanor — with jail time and a fine — for disrupting an official meeting of “public servants.”

Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, has SB173, which specifically mentions official meetings of the House and/or Senate, but also includes “public officials,” — which could mean any meeting, from library board to city council, of folks doing the public’s business — thousands of meetings across Utah each year.

This appears to be a clear response to the often disruptive, and sometimes violent, demonstrations aimed at the meetings of the state-created inland port. However, when asked if that was his intention, Ipson replied “Not necessarily.”

The port’s board meetings have been interrupted, even canceled, by loud, well-organized demonstrators who want to stop the construction of a huge inland port out by the Salt Lake City International Airport.

The groups — one of which has “riot” as part of its name — even took over the offices of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce in July 2019. At the time, the chair of the inland port was chamber president Derek Miller, who later stepped down as board chair but remains on the inland board. That action was NOT against an official meeting, so likely wouldn’t fall under Ipson’s bill.

Some demonstrators were arrested and eventually found guilty of various counts, basically dealing with their refusal to disburse, or trespassing, when ordered by law enforcement officers, who flooded the Chamber building’s lobby, getting in pushing matches with some of the demonstrators.

But if SB173 passes, law enforcement wouldn’t have to rely on current tangential laws about a demonstration or disruptive behavior at an “official meeting” — they would have a new, specific law aimed at the action during a meeting by “public officials.”

Ipson told that his bill was being redrafted because of some language problems. But he added that even with the new wording, it would still apply to nonlegislative meetings of “public officials,” and so would still apply to inland port meetings.

The bill says if someone shouts out, or is disruptive, for less than five seconds, then they could be charged with an infraction — like a parking ticket — perhaps written right on the spot of the meeting.

But if they continued in their protest over five seconds, on second offense it’s a Class C misdemeanor or third offenses, then they could be charged with a Class B misdemeanor.

A Class C misdemeanor is a criminal act punishable up to 90 days in jail and/or a $750 fine.

A Class B is punishable by being jailed for up to six months and/or a $1,000 fine.

On rare occasions, when the House or Senate is in session, there are outbursts from citizens in the bodies’ public galleries, which overlook the chamber floors.

The President or Speaker calls out to those folks, telling them to be quiet. If they persist, guards or UHP troopers escort them out of the galleries. But rarely are they arrested or ticketed.

More often, in standing or interim meetings of legislative committees, some folks will shout out, or otherwise disrupt those smaller meetings. Again, this bill would allow first-hand action by law enforcement against the demonstrators.

And SB173 would allow for that specific action just for disrupting the public meeting itself.