GOP House approves big fines for ‘mass picketing’

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Republicans in the Michigan House voted late Wednesday to make it easier for courts to shut down “mass picketing” demonstrations and fine protesters who block entrances to businesses, private residences or roadways.

Under the legislation, which Democrats decried as unconstitutional prior to the 57-50 vote, individuals who return to a disruptive demonstration already blocked by a court could face fines of up to $1,000 a day. Unions or other organizing groups could be fined up to $10,000 each day.

Michigan law already prohibits certain forms of mass picketing, but sponsoring Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland, said a spate of recent incidents make it apparent that “the current penalties are not sufficient to deter already-illegal activity.”

He noted reports that 39 people were arrested last month outside a Detroit McDonald’s “for blocking the entrance and preventing them from being able to conduct their business” during a protest against low wages. Glenn also cited an environmental protest outside the Midland home of Attorney General Bill Schuette in July.

But the proposal is “unnecessary, over-reaching, outrageous, oppressive and un-American,” said state Rep. Leslie Love, D-Detroit, telling her colleagues she was “particularly disturbed” because her African-American elders did not earn equal rights “solely through civil protest.”

The proposal would allow employers or others affected by mass picketing to bring an action against demonstrators in their local circuit court. It also would lower the evidence threshold required for a court to order picketers to stop demonstrations.

Under the bill, employers could obtain injunctive relief if a court determined the picketing violated a misdemeanor law that prohibits individuals from blocking “the pursuit of any lawful work or employment by mass picketing.”

The legislation might fly in “Putin’s Russia” but not in Michigan or the United States, said state Rep. Jim Townsend, D-Royal Oak, suggesting the proposal could lead to courts shutting down protests based on flimsy or even manipulated evidence.

“This is a denial of due process,” Townsend said. “What the law says now is you have to show irreparable harm, and that’s a significant standard you have to meet. And the reason we have that standard is because they’re not having a full trial.”

Glenn disputed that characterization.

“Once the injunction has been granted by a judge, then they have to come back and do the illegal activity for a second time for the fines to be enforced,” he said. “At that point they go before a judge and due process occurs.”

The legislation is now heading to the Senate for further consideration.