Committee passes bills to up penalties for protesters on freeways

St.Paul – State lawmakers are working swiftly on a set of bills that would raise the penalties for protesters who shut down freeways and block access to airports and transit lines.

“This is such a public safety issue,” said Rep. Kathy Lohmer, Republican from Stillwater.  “This is not about the first amendment this is not about taking away anyone’s rights to peacefully protest.  We want to keep people safe.”

Protesters who were angry over the shooting and killing of Philando Castile by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez took over I-94 in St.  Paul last summer and shut it down for several hours.  A similar protest shutdown traffic on the southbound lanes of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis

“You do not have the constitutional First Amendment right to pull your vehicle perpendicular to cross traffic because you have something to say,” said Rep. Nick Zerwas, one of the bill authors.

Shutting down a freeway is already against the law.  Both Zerwas’ and Lohmer’s bills along with two companion bills in the Senate would raise the penalties to gross misdemeanors.   That means the penalties rise to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

But at a House hearing on Wednesday, opponents to the bills argued it will suppress free speech.

“Take your shovel and dig Martin Luther King back up.  Dig Malcolm X back up and charge them with protesting,” shouted John Thompson.

The bills passed on 7-4 vote in the House Public Safety Committee and now go to the House floor.  A similar bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee passed on a 7-2 vote and will move the Senate Floor.