Right-wing social media freakout could kill a bill putting restrictions on local emergency orders

Utah Capitol 09

A misreading of one line in a bill to put restrictions on local governments during public emergencies led to a public freakout among some right-wing elements in Utah, and now the bill is in jeopardy.

Rep. Tim Hawkes, R-Centerville, says his HB3009 is designed to put some “guardrails” on local governments during emergencies, specifically the authority for issuing lockdowns like the stay at home orders currently in place during the coronavirus pandemic. It allows the governor or legislature to override such a local order during an emergency.

However, some right-wing activists on Facebook misread a section defining a “local order constraint,” or emergency order, issued by a local government. The definition includes the ability to exercise “physical control over property and over individuals.” While this section of the bill was simply meant to define certain terms in the statute, it was wrongly seen by some individuals as granting sweeping new powers to the government, the exact opposite of what the bill is intended to do.

“People pulled the fire alarm,” said Hawkes. “We’re living in an atmosphere of fear right now. People are fearful of the coronavirus, while others are afraid of economic uncertainty and the government will trample on their civil liberties.”

Leading the misinformation charge against the bill is the right-wing group “Defending Utah.” They’ve added multiple breathless posts on their Facebook page warning about HB3009 “giving tyrannical powers” to local governments, with comments declaring members of the legislature who are in favor of the bill “traitors to the people of Utah.” Adding to the hysteria is the not so subtle use of images from Nazi Germany.

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This flood of misunderstanding and propaganda has filtered out to other social media streams, prompting emails, calls and text messages to lawmakers who are bewildered by the reaction, especially since the proposed bill does exactly the opposite of what the online provocateurs claim.

And now the bill could be too hot to handle for lawmakers who are heading back into special session later this week.

“I was surprised by the reaction,” said Hawkes. “It didn’t make any sense at all. It’s bewildering that I’m being accused of the very problem I’m trying to resolve. If we don’t pass this, then it means these local stay at home orders can remain. We won’t be able to put these checks in place.”

Adding to the sense of unease is the state GOP convention this weekend. Some Republican lawmakers say privately they’re worried the bill could upset some of the more conspiratorially-minded delegates who may hold their political fate in their hands. 

Hawkes admits there’s some language in the bill that can be misconstrued, but once he explains it to concerned citizens, they understand. But, that takes some time.

“I’ve had maybe 200 emails, 50 calls and 70 texts. If I spend 5 minutes with each of them, it’s 5 days of work,” he says.

Hawkes says he is not ready to pronounce the bill dead just yet as he’s still working to convince his colleagues to vote in favor of it, despite the outrage.

“If this bill did what they say it does, I would be mad too,” he laughed. “There’s good policy in there. I just don’t know if I have enough time to change some minds.”