Six states act on highway protest rules

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | Tuesday, May 16, 2017

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.

Advocates say efforts to keep protests off busy roadways are a commonsense way to help ensure public safety. Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, view efforts to punish protesters as violations of the First Amendment.

South Dakota was the first state this year to act on the issue. A new law already in effect there authorizes stiff penalties for standing on a highway to block traffic.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard said the new law protects people who want to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights.

“It also protects against people who trespass, obstruct traffic – create dangerous situations,” the Republican governor said in remarks following the bill signing.

SB176 sets punishment at 1 year in jail and/or $2,000 fines. Previously, the state could punish offenders with 30 days in jail and/or $500 fines.

In bordering Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton acted on Monday, May 15, to veto a 71-page public safety bill. One provision in the bill would increase penalties for impeding access to highways and roadways within airport property, as well as public transit.

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

The bill, SF803, stated that anyone found guilty of blocking access would face up to one year behind bars and/or a $3,000 fine.

Critics said a higher fine will not deter protesters. Instead, they said the legislation only threatens free speech.

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, denied the effort would stifle free speech.

“Some people believe incorrectly that they have a right to camp out on a freeway to impede traffic and to bring everything to a halt,” Zerwas said during a recent hearing. “If you believe it’s a First Amendment right to block a freeway, you’re mistaken. That is against the law already.”

In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson vetoed a bill to address “mass picketing” on the state’s roadways. Specifically, anyone found to obstruct traffic on public roads, railways, airports, or other forms of travel.

Violators would face up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. In addition, SB550 would permit any “person or entity who is harmed by unlawful mass picketing” to take the offender to circuit court.

The Republican governor said while the bill had good intentions, the language covering mass picketing was not specific enough and could lead to people’s constitutional rights being impeded.

Across the state line in Tennessee, a new law quadruples the fine for obstructing a roadway in certain incidents. The current fine is $50 fine.

Gov. Bill Haslam enacted the rule change. As a result, SB902 increases the fine to $200 for any incident that impedes an emergency vehicle from responding to an emergency.

As the bill made its way through the statehouse Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, assured lawmakers the new rule allows for civil protest. However, “it doesn’t allow for people who might decide to block the highway from emergency vehicles during that civil protest.”

A North Carolina bill halfway through the statehouse would legally protect drivers in certain instances who hit protesters blocking the road.

House lawmakers voted 67-48 to advance a bill to shield drivers from lawsuits if they “exercise due care.”

HB330 now moves to the Senate.

Drivers would not be protected 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 bill is in the Senate Rules and Operations Committee.

One Massachusetts state lawmaker is trying again to address concerns about highway blockages.

State law now authorizes fines up to $50 or up to three months in jail.

Rep. Colleen Gary, D-Dracut, has introduced a bill that covers anyone who intentionally blocks or prevents access to roadways posted with a speed limit of at least 30 mph. Violators could face 10 years in prison for stopping traffic.

Gary pursued a rule in 2015 to authorize the same punishment for blocking highways as attempted murder.

H3057 is in the Judiciary Committee.

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