Legislators at the State Capitol would be wise to proceed carefully with efforts to clamp down on certain types of protest — namely, those that block highways and light rail tracks — but they should proceed.
Obstructing a highway is already against the law, and with good reason. Highways are designed for fast-flowing traffic, with cars and trucks speeding by at 60 to 70 mph and above. They have become, lately, the venue of choice for protesters who are convinced it is the best way to bring attention to their causes.
This nation was birthed in protest, and civil disobedience is part of the American DNA. Any law that seeks to restrict the right to protest must strike a careful balance that preserves public safety, without trammeling on the right to speak against perceived injustice.
But no right is absolute. Even the American Civil Liberties Union, in its Right to Protest content, notes that “The First Amendment does not protect speech that is combined with the violation of established laws such as trespassing, or disobeying a lawful order by a police officer … . If you endanger others while protesting, you can be arrested. A protest that blocks vehicular or pedestrian traffic is illegal without a permit.”
So why not just enforce the laws on the books? Republican legislators have said the penalties are too light to serve as a deterrent, and they may be right. A sensible proposal now at the Capitol would triple maximum fines to $3,000, and increase possible jail time to a maximum of one year — up from 90 days. The violation itself would go from misdemeanor to gross misdemeanor. That seems a reasonable approach to providing a more effective deterrent and spurring protesters to seek other venues.
Other proposals would make such an offense a felony. That goes too far. Justice is not served by filling the state’s prisons with nonviolent civic protesters. A single protest could flood a county prosecutor’s office with dozens of felony cases, all in need of immediate attention. Better to save already scarce resources for prosecution of actual criminals. Neither should local officials tie up resources in what would most likely be fruitless — and unconstitutional — attempts to recoup costs from convicted protesters. If criminal transgressors are to be charged with the cost of enforcement, there are better places to start than protesters.
And yet, the need for some type of action that can prevent future highway blockages is increasingly apparent. Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who is carrying the felony bill, said he is prepared to be flexible. “For me it’s about increasing awareness,” he said. “No one wants to shut off the right to protest. But we do want to keep people safe. If I need to modify the bill, I will. But we have to keep open access to freeways, trains, airports and hospitals.”
That is a reasonable expectation in a civilized society. Consider that St. Paul just saw one of its largest demonstrations — the Women’s March that brought some 100,000 people to the Capitol — and it remained peaceful and jeopardized no one.
Blocking a freeway or a train track goes beyond peaceful protest. Those are inherently aggressive acts, designed to trigger a confrontation with law enforcement. They pose an immediate hazard to the protesters and motorists, as well as law enforcement.
The Legislature must be mindful of the right to peaceful protest, and of the danger in ignoring the concerns of those who feel aggrieved. But protesters must recognize they do not have a right to jeopardize the safety of others.