Alaska Legislature

Alaska attorney general says protest crackdown bill could apply to homeless people

JUNEAU — Attorney General Treg Taylor said Wednesday that a bill to increase penalties on unpermitted protests could also apply to homeless people who block roads, sidewalks and trails.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing Wednesday on Senate Bill 255. The bill would impose enhanced penalties for obstructing highways, navigable waterways, airport runways and other public places.

An unpermitted protest that blocks a road can currently attract a $1,000 fine, the Alaska Department of Law said. Under the bill, that would become a class C felony, which can result in five years in prison or a $50,000 fine. Civil penalties would start at $10,000 for nominal property damage.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed the bill in February in response to extended protests — often demanding action on climate change — that have blocked roads and ports in the Lower 48 and Europe.

”It is important to distinguish between peaceful expression of rights and actions that pose risks to public safety and emergency response efforts,” Dunleavy said in a prepared statement in February.

The bill specifies that the enhanced penalties would apply in situations where there is a significant risk of physical harm or interference with emergency response efforts. But critics have said it is overly broad and vague.

Civil rights groups have strongly opposed the bill. They have argued it could violate constitutional protections for freedom of speech and peaceable assembly.


Taylor said while Alaska has not seen days-long protests that block roadways, the state could be uniquely at risk. Blocking the Seward Highway could see store shelves emptied on the Kenai Peninsula; shutting down the Dalton Highway could have “devastating” effects on the oil patch, he said.

Taylor told lawmakers Wednesday that the measure attempted to strike a balance between competing constitutional rights: the right to assemble and the right to free movement in public spaces. On freedom of movement, the attorney general used the example of wanting to visit a controversial exhibition at an art gallery with his family.

“I shouldn’t have to deal with a bunch of people blocking my passage and preventing my family from doing those things,” he told Senate members Wednesday.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Matt Claman, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, retorted that as a public official, he has walked through crowds of hostile protesters and found the process uncomfortable. But, he said about Alaska, “I still have a hard time seeing that we’re at that place that you’re describing in the Lower 48 states — that it’s a big issue today.”

Testifiers on Wednesday were strongly opposed to the measure on First Amendment grounds. Nithya Thiru, queer and trans justice program manager at the ACLU of Alaska, testified on their own behalf. They spoke about the legacy of the Selma Marches.

“Assembling and protesting in roadways is a critical tool that American communities have historically used to push our governments to be better when our government does not listen,” they said.

In a brief interview after Wednesday’s hearing, Taylor was asked whether the new felony convictions could apply to homeless and unhoused people. He confirmed they could.

“I think that would keep them from putting their tents across sidewalks, roadways, alleyways. I think that they’d be more limited to parks,” he said.

In state statute, the definition of roads includes park trails and paths.

Last year, the Municipality of Anchorage joined an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge homeless camp abatement requirements. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has issued rulings that protect the rights of homeless people to camp outdoors on municipal property when there is no indoor shelter available.

[Anchorage Assembly postpones vote on homeless camp rules while Bronson proposes criminal camping offense]

Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, said in an interview Wednesday that she was concerned the measure could help criminalize homelessness in Alaska.

“These are folks who are in crisis,” she said. “They need support and guidance and trusted social workers. They do not need to be cited and or receive undue penalties because they do not have a safe place to lay their head.”

Around a hundred Juneau students swarmed the state Capitol last week and blocked hallways in an unpermitted protest to challenge Dunleavy’s veto of an education bill. If SB 255 were law, the enhanced penalties could have applied to those students, Taylor said. But, he said, they likely would not have been used. Law enforcement officers would likely take into account the age of the protesters; if there were alternative routes; and if people could move through the crowd relatively easily, he said.

With fewer than 40 days left in the session, it’s unclear if SB 255 will get a second hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Claman said in an interview Wednesday that he has asked the Department of Law for its 10 highest legislative priorities, without a response.

A companion bill in the House has advanced to the Judiciary Committee, where it is awaiting its first hearing. The measure has received a warmer reception from conservative members of the Republican-led majority.

Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire is a politics and general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Juneau. He previously reported from Juneau for Alaska's News Source. Contact him at