Committee hearing on protest bill disrupted by protesters

In the end, it was fitting, considering the controversial topic at hand. A legislative committee hearing forced to gavel into recess, unable to continue over the chants and shouts and disruption of protesters -- protesters who are upset about a bill designed to discourage disruptive protests.

“Shame, shame, shame," they chanted at the legislators who’d just passed the bill to another committee. “Shame on you all! It’s a crime to be black in Minnesota!”

Unable to continue, the hearing was cut short as protesters called legislators who’d voted in favor of the bill “traitors.”

The bill is called House File 322 and its purpose is simple: authorizing governmental units to sue for the costs of public safety related to unlawful assemblies. In other words, in the case of any protest that shuts down a freeway or becomes a public nuisance, the city or county or state involved can sue to get the costs recouped. But, they can only sue those who are convicted of a crime related to that protest.

“This bill doesn’t impact someone legally expressing their right to free speech at all,” explained the bill's chief author, Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River), responding to sharp criticism from fellow legislators who believe this is an attack on free speech. “If you go out of your way to bring in extra law enforcement costs, then you bring up that cost because you just want to make it hurt, that’s what this bill is for.”

But, a string of testifiers also sharply criticized the bill, among them the VP of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP.

“The burdens of these restrictions would be disproportionately borne by people least able to pay large settlements,” testified Cathy Jones. “HF 322 would give police departments a blank check to overreact to public protests.”

Among the legislators on the House Civil Law and Data Practices Policy committee, several Democrats had harsh words. Among them, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minneapolis) who reminded Rep. Zerwas of her own status as a refugee from Somalia, escaping the oppression of a dictator.

“To me, your bill and the limitations that you’re trying to create, it seems you want us to live under a dictatorship," she told him. 

And Rep. John Lesch (D-St. Paul) compared the unlawful protests Zerwas is targeting, such as the one last summer on Interstate 94 to the peaceful marches of this past weekend, when women marched against President Trump. One is civil disobedience, the other obtained permits. But, there’s a lot of grey areas in between.

Lesch noted they “did not have permits for 100,000 people going blocks from the capitol, they did not…. therefore that protest was technically outside the limits and the boundaries of the law., as you stated, and they would be liable for those costs. And that I think is a fundamental flaw in this bill.”

A companion bill, also authored by Zerwas, would increase penalties for protesters who block freeways, light rail lines or access to airports. It has yet to get a hearing.