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Protestor penalty bill returning to House Floor

Protestors’ rights vs. public safety is heading back to the House Floor.

Sponsored by Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River), HF390, as amended, would increase the penalty from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor for someone who intentionally obstructs traffic “that is entering, exiting, or on a freeway or entering, exiting, or on a public roadway within the boundaries of airport property with the intent to interfere with, obstruct or otherwise disrupt traffic.”

It would also add restricting passenger access to the statute regarding unlawful interference with a transit operator.

The House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee sent the bill back to the House Floor Thursday on a 9-6 party-line vote. A companion, SF676, sponsored by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria), awaits action by the full Senate.

The bill was awaiting action by the full House at the end of the 2017 session; therefore, by rule, it was returned to the committee that last acted on it. The language was also removed last May in the conference committee process for the omnibus public safety law.

The most recent committee vote should have surprised no one as the arguments were akin to those made in 2017.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL-Roseville) said protesting is a constitutional right, and argued the bill says “it’s OK to place restrictions on rights if it’s in the name of public safety.”

Zerwas said the bill is not about silencing voices, rather it would discourage “highly dangerous and illegal behavior” and punish people who are net deterred.

WATCH House public safety committee debates the bill

“There’s lots of places to go and protest and when it is endangering public safety then we have a right, and I think an incumbent duty upon ourselves, to take a look at this, look at it in view of public safety and act accordingly,” added Rep. Mark Uglem (R-Champlin). “… We need to really look out for the general public on this.”

Protesters disrupted light-rail service at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in December 2015. Eight months later protesters blocked Interstate 94 in St. Paul to protest the shooting of Philando Castile, a black man killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights.

In each instance, the protest took place where it is illegal to do so.

Rep. Raymond Dehn (DFL-Mpls) said the bill looks like “a hammer” on protestors.

“We know oftentimes these protests take place, and these type of activities take place because people feel that they’ve been wronged, that there are injustices in our system, and that no one is listening or paying attention to them,” he said. “It’s been proven and it’s been effective in actually getting attention in getting people to listen.”

Both Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul) and Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center) warned Zerwas the bill is aimed at something far less broad than how it is currently written.

As an example, Hilstrom cited a potential instance where a couple has a disagreement and one tries to get away from the other via mass transit. “I stand in front of the door … saying, ‘Don’t get on, don’t get on, don’t get on. You can’t go, you can’t go,’ I’ve now committed a gross misdemeanor under you bill. It has nothing to do with protests.”

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