Bills in six states focus on highway protests

February 6, 2018

Keith Goble


State lawmakers from around the country continue to address concerns about protests that shut down major highways. 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 acted one year ago to veto similar efforts.

New this year in Missouri are multiple bills to deter highway protests.

State law now classifies blocking roadways as a Class B misdemeanor.

Two bills – HB1259 and HB2145 – would increase criminal penalties in an effort to deter individuals from impeding traffic on roadways, highways or interstates without a permit. Specifically, blocking an interstate would become a felony.

“While the United States Supreme Court has indicated that the First Amendment grants citizens the right to peaceably assemble, said right is not absolute,” Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, wrote in a news release. “Courts throughout this nation have held that the First Amendment does not allow for intentional disruption in the flow of traffic as such presents a clear and present danger to the general public.”

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.

One Senate bill, SB813, would make it a Class A misdemeanor to block lanes of interstate or other limited access highways.

Fines would be set at $1,000 to $5,000, or offenders could be sentenced to seven to 30 days in jail. Offenders could also be held liable in civil suits filed by ambulance patients delayed by blocked interstates.

An effort underway in the Kentucky Legislature covers concerns about protests that spill onto roadways.

Rep. Wesley Morgan, R-Richmond, introduced a bill to protect drivers who unintentionally strike pedestrians in certain situations.

Specifically, motorists and truck drivers would not be held criminally or civilly liable for causing injury or death to a person obstructing traffic on a public street, road, or highway during a protest where a permit was not granted.

HB53 would also outlaw a person from concealing their identity within 500 feet of a protest site. Protesters wearing protective gear, including shields and armor, would also be off limits. Carrying a deadly weapon would also be prohibited.

In addition, the effort would prohibit people from interfering with police duties during a protest.

Violators would face up to one year behind bars and a $500 fine.

Similarly in North Carolina, a bill halfway through the statehouse 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 would also be off the table for hitting someone who has a valid permit allowing a protest in a public street.

The issue also is being addressed at the Iowa statehouse. A Senate bill would prohibit people from intentionally blocking traffic on highways with speeds posted at 55 mph or more.

Carried over from the 2017 legislative session, SF426 would authorize people found guilty to face up to five years in prison and/or fines up to $7,500.

Iowa law already prohibits people from placing obstructions on roadways. Violators face up to two years behind bars and fines up to $6,250.

Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, previously said he recognizes the right to protest but that interstates are not the place to do it.

Legislation to address the issue are ongoing in states that include Massachusetts and Washington.