Minnesota House approves stiffer punishment for highway protesters

May 14, 2018

Keith Goble

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Concern about highway blockages is addressed in a bill that is halfway through the Minnesota statehouse. The legislative action is in response to traffic disruptions the past few years related to protests and demonstrations.

To date, states including South Dakota and Tennessee have enacted specific rules to deter highway protests through stiff fines and punishments. Governors in Arkansas and Minnesota a year ago vetoed similar efforts.

The issued was renewed this year at the Minnesota statehouse. The state’s House voted 71-55 in the past week to advance a bill that covers protesters who obstruct traffic access to a highway, airport or public transit.

State law now permits such actions to carry up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

HF390 would raise the penalty for obstructing access to one year in jail and/or $3,000 fines.

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, view efforts to punish protesters as violations of the First Amendment. They add that a higher fine will not deter protesters. Instead, they say the legislation only threatens free speech.

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, said it is already illegal to block a roadway. He says his bill would simply boost the punishment for lawbreakers.

Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth, the lone Democrat to vote in favor of the bill, said during House floor discussion it is important for the Legislature to act to support law enforcement.

“We are not outlawing any legal protest here,” Marquart said. “The First Amendment doesn’t protect illegal activities. This isn’t about allowing peaceful protest. It’s about safety and endangering people on highways.”

The bill has moved to the Senate where it awaits consideration in committee.

North Carolina
The issue could also be brought up for consideration in the coming months in the Tar Heel State.

A bill halfway through the North Carolina General Assembly would protect drivers who unintentionally strike pedestrians in certain situations.

Specifically, the proposed law would shield drivers from lawsuits if they “exercise due care” in instances where protesters blocking the road are hit.

HB330 would not protect drivers from liability if they are “willful and wanton” when striking protesters or demonstrators while blocking a roadway. Immunity also would be off the table for hitting someone who has a valid permit allowing a protest in a public street.

The bill can be brought up for consideration in the Senate Rules and Operations Committee once the regular session convenes on Wednesday, May 16. House lawmakers approved the bill last spring.

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Keith Goble has been covering trucking-related laws since 2000. His daily web reports, radio news and “OOIDA’s State Watch” in Land Line Magazine are the industry’s premier sources for information regarding state legislative affairs.