States push to criminalize wearing masks

Arizona residents may want to put their costumes away until Halloween.

A new bill, recently introduced by state GOP Rep. Jay Lawrence, would make it a felony offense to “wear a disguise, whether partial or complete to evade or escape discovery, recognition or identification” during protests and other public events.

Offenders could face up to a year in prison, while anyone caught wearing a mask when committing property destruction could face up to five years. 

It's just the latest state-based effort to crack down on wearing masks in certain circumstances. Lawrence first announced his plans to introduce the bill back in August, citing concerns about mask-wearing rioters. 

“While the right to anonymity is sometimes desirable in healthy political discourse (think of letters to the editor, etc), too many who wish to act violently hide behind hoods or masks in an effort to intimidate or conceal their identity from law enforcement,” Lawrence said in a Facebook post at the time. 

The bill does make exemptions for disguises worn for “business-related purpose” or for places where a mask is “generally viewed as part of acceptable attire,” but critics say that is too vague and could lead to the arrests of people wearing costumes for more innocent purposes.

Lawrence says the bill is not intended to target those types of costumes, but is meant for people who are intentionally trying to evade recognition.

“That type of disguise would not be the same as Antifa and others who wear masks and hoods to hide their identity,” Lawrence told Capitol Media Services in Arizona.

The proposal will likely be considered during Arizona’s next legislative session which begins in January.

Arizona is the latest in a string of states to push for anti-mask legislation, coming after a wave of violence and property destruction at protests across the country carried out by hooded or masked demonstrators. 

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Earlier this year, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum signed a bill into law which makes it illegal to wear masks or other face coverings when committing a criminal offense, in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in the state

Washington state Sen. Jim Honeyford introduced a bill  in May that would make it illegal to wear a mask on public property, with exceptions made for religious dress and other factors. The bill was aimed at “a small but dangerous group of individuals who conceal their identities while committing illegal acts under the guise of political protest.”

Opponents of anti-mask legislation say it violates protesters’ First Amendment rights.

“The First Amendment actually protects people’s right to wear a mask in public,” Elisabeth Smith of the ACLU Washington told the Seattle Times. “It’s clear that the impetus is to criminalize protest behavior.” 

Several states already have anti-disguise laws in the books, many of which date back to the early 20th century and came as a response to the hooded members of Klu Klux Klan.

Alabama’s law outlaws disguises with exceptions for events like Mardi Gras and Halloween. In Ohio, it is illegal for two or more people to wear a disguise while committing a misdemeanor.