- Associated Press - Thursday, April 21, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - Protesters who blocked the roads before a March rally for Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump inspired state lawmakers to modify a bill Thursday increasing penalties for blocking access to political campaign events.

Legislators tacked the amendment onto a measure about free speech on college campuses during a vociferous debate that spanned civil rights and the Oregon rancher standoff.

The amendment was sponsored by Republican Sen. John Kavanagh who lives in and represents the Phoenix suburb where police arrested protesters for blocking a main highway leading to the Trump campaign event.

Kavanagh’s amendment would increase penalties for blocking traffic from a Class 3 to a Class 1 misdemeanor - which carries a maximum of six months in jail and $2,500 fine - if the person intentionally blocks access to a political campaign event or a government meeting or hearing.

The person would have to first receive a verbal warning before police could arrest them.

The amendment on House Bill 2548 passed on a 14-9 vote Thursday. The House then advanced the bill, though it still requires a formal vote.

The underlying proposal would award damages, court and attorney fees to people who are successful in lawsuits against universities and community colleges for illegally restricting First Amendment rights.

During the debate, Kavanagh called protesters’ behavior “corrosive to democracy” while several other Republicans backed the provision as necessary to defend First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.

One Republican senator said he thought the proposed penalty was not harsh enough, having sat in the traffic himself, and suggested that some of the protesters were immigrants.

“I mean people from other countries obstructing people from the United States from participating in the political process, I find that deeply offensive,” said Sen. Jeff Dial, R-Chandler.

Democrats said lawmakers should not criminalize the act of civil disobedience.

Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, argued that there are already laws in place to prevent people from blocking traffic and it would be wrong to increase penalties for someone expressing their First Amendment rights.

“One man’s blocking a political event is another man’s free expression of political beliefs,” he said.

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