Protesters busted windows and threw rocks at police on May Day in Olympia this year, and one state lawmaker contends the masks some demonstrators wore were partly to blame.
State Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, says anonymity emboldens protesters who might cause property damage and become violent, so he introduced legislation Monday that would ban the wearing of hoods, masks and bandannas at a public event if they cover a person’s face.
Some people said the bill might clash with free-speech rights and burden peaceful protesters who want to stay anonymous for fear of retaliation.
Honeyford countered that the bill — which would make concealing your identity a gross midsemeanor — could keep future protests peaceful and help law enforcement catch lawbreakers.
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There are some exceptions in the legislation.
People who wear masks or hoods as part of their religious attire would be exempt, as would folks who don them for Halloween or to ward off cold weather.
The measure aims to “protect the life, health and safety of the community and of property,” and to help police “identify lawbreakers,” Honeyford said.
He cited the damage to downtown businesses — estimated at roughly $60,000 — during May Day protests in Olympia as part of his reasoning for introducing the bill.
Nine people were arrested in connection with the damage and spurts of violence. Police say 75 to 100 people participated in the protest and are asking for help identifying other people involved.
Honeyford’s bill faces significant hurdles.
One is the Legislature’s current special session focused on negotiating a two-year budget. Top lawmakers don’t typically work on many new bills that aren’t tied to the budget during overtime sessions.
Also, Key Democrats in the majority-Democrat House have concerns with Honeyford’s proposal.
State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, a Tacoma Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said there are times when protesters should get the protection of anonymity — a person in Chechnya protesting violence against gay men in that country might want to stay anonymous, she said by way of example.
“If that were happening here, you could understand why people might be wearing masks even to do a peaceful protest,” Jinkins said.
A broad anti-mask law in California was struck down by state courts after similar objections. Iranian-Americans said protesting without protecting their identities could have put relatives back in Iran at risk.
The California law is now narrower; it’s only illegal to wear a mask while committing a crime.
Federal courts could prove an even larger hurdle for Honeyford.
Elisabeth Smith, the legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said she believes Honeyford’s measure runs afoul of free-speech protections.
The bill would ban people from wearing a mask as a political statement, which she said is protected by past court rulings in much the same way flag burning is.
Similar anti-mask bills have survived in other states, however, Honeyford said.
Some date back to the mid 1900s when lawmakers were trying to stop Ku Klux Klan activity.
Lawmakers do appear to have at least some common ground on the issue, more so than a lightning-rod bill from state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, that could add jail time for intentionally breaking the law to disrupt economic activity, such as blocking train tracks.
That measure stalled in the Legislature this year, in part due to fierce opposition from Democrats.
Jinkins said she would be more open to anti-mask legislation if it was patterned on California’s law, although she said she hadn’t studied the issue in depth. The same was true for Rep. Roger Goodman, a Kirkland Democrat who chairs the House Public Safety Committee.
Honeyford said he expects to make revisions to his bill as it moves through the legislative process. He added he’s hoping to target mask wearers who commit crimes.
“If they’re not committing illegal acts, and it’s a peaceful demonstration, I do not see a problem,” he said.