Bills across the country could increase penalties for protesters

From the Black Lives Matter movement to environmentalists trying to stop new oil pipelines to the recent Women's March against President Trump, the past year has been filled with large, often spontaneous protests.

Now the reaction to those protests is appearing in a number of Republican-controlled statehouses across the country, where lawmakers are introducing proposals to increase penalties for those who block roadways while protesting.

A bill in Iowa was inspired by a protest against Donald Trump shortly after the November election. More than 100 demonstrators blocked traffic on Interstate 80, just outside Iowa City, Iowa, stopping traffic on the busy trucking route for almost a half-hour.

"You're not just stopping traffic," said Republican state Sen. Jake Chapman about his bill, which would apply to people blocking highways with speeds posted above 55 mph. Violators could get a felony and spend five years in prison, plus a fine of up to $7,500

"You're impeding law enforcement ability to get to call where there could be serious life-threatening situations," said Chapman, who also works for an ambulance service.

National pattern

Opponents of the bill call it an attack on free speech.

"Republicans have taken over state legislatures across the country and they appear interested in punishing people with different views than theirs," said Democratic state Sen. Joe Bolckom of Iowa City.

In North Dakota, where protests have gone on for months over construction of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, a lawmaker has introduced a bill that would allow motorists to run over and kill any protester obstructing a highway as long as the driver did not do it intentionally.

Bills that would increase penalties on unauthorized protests have also been introduced in Michigan and Washington.

Last week in Minnesota, a House committee approved legislation that would increase penalties and charge demonstrators the cost of policing protests. After the fatal shooting by police of an unarmed black man, Philando Castile, Black Lives Matter protests blocked busy interstates in the Twin Cities. Republican state Rep. Nick Zerwas cited the cost of responding to protests for taxpayers as justification for the bill.

"These individuals have broken the law," Zerwas said at the hearing. "It is against state statute to be on the freeway."

The hearing became heated when John Thompson, a friend of Castile, testified, telling lawmakers the protesters were trying to focus attention on the issue of police killings.

"You know what they were doing? They were asking for all you guys to come out and say what is it we can do to help you," Thompson said. "Not one of you came out!"

Free speech concerns

As protests continue to ramp up nationwide, Rita Bettis, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, says elected officials should be protecting free speech rights. She says bills like the one in her state do the opposite.

"In our country where the government's power flows from the people, peaceful protest is a source of democratic strength, not a weakness, and it deserves to be protected and cherished," Bettis says. "Not attacked."

Advocates like Bettis say if a few states can reduce a demonstrator's ability to block traffic, it could have a chilling effect on Americans' right to protest.

Tim Nelson of Minnesota Public Radio News and Amy Sisk of Inside Energy contributed reporting to this story.

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