Cracking down on protesters who block highways and airport access roads has emerged as a top public safety goal for Republicans in Minnesota's Legislature, who are quickly pushing through measures to raise criminal penalties for demonstrations that interfere with traffic.

"This really is a priority," House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Wednesday at a news conference. Within hours, public safety committees in the House and Senate voted to increase penalties for obstructing traffic access to an airport, highway or public transit system — from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor.

Republicans support the right to peacefully protest, Daudt said, but he called highway demonstrations "dangerous" and added that "there is a point where one person's rights end and another's begins."

The legislation is in response to protests that erupted after the deaths of two black men at the hands of Minnesota police. In late 2015, protesters rallied at the Mall of America and also blocked roads to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to protest the death of Jamar Clark. Other demonstrations stopped traffic on Interstates 94 and 35W to protest the 2016 death of Philando Castile and in reaction to the election of President Donald Trump.

Daudt's support raises the bill's profile, upping its chances of passage by the full Legislature despite fierce opposition from some activists, which was on display again Wednesday at the Capitol. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has not taken a firm position on the proposal.

GOP Reps. Nick Zerwas of Elk River and Kathy Lohmer of Stillwater have introduced similar measures. They shared anecdotes about constituents who contacted them to complain about past freeway protests, including allegations that some impeded highway travel for medical emergencies.

Zerwas' bill would raise the penalty for obstructing traffic access to an airport, a highway or public transit from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. A gross misdemeanor could result in up to a year in jail or a $3,000 fine, or both.

"A misdemeanor has not been a deterrent to keep people off freeways, to keep people from closing down airports, so hopefully a gross misdemeanor will, where someone is actually booked and actually spends time in jail," Zerwas said.

Lohmer's bill would create a gross misdemeanor for public nuisances on highways, as well as roadways within airport property.

The House panel approved the two measures along party lines, 10-6. The room erupted with shouts of "shame!" after the measures passed.

Also Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved by a 7-2 vote a companion to the Zerwas measure. That legislation is sponsored by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, a former county sheriff.

Dayton previously said he supports protesters' First Amendment rights but has also expressed public safety concerns about demonstrations on highways. A spokesman said the governor would not weigh in on the proposal until he sees it in final form.

Opponents said it would do little to deter protests that block highways but have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights. They said it would disproportionately jail and harm people of color, who make up a good number of those protesting police shootings of black men.

"The prospect of facing a year in jail will likely deter a lot of people from participating in demonstrations, even demonstrations that have no intention of going out on a highway," said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. "It's too big of a price for people to pay to participate in demonstrations."

Nelson noted that raising the penalty to a gross misdemeanor would classify "people who largely cause inconvenience" the same as those who commit fifth-degree assault, multiple domestic assaults, types of criminal sexual conduct and malicious punishment of a child. "Put simply, the punishment does not fit the crime," she said.

Minnesota is among a growing number of states where lawmakers are looking to curb large, disruptive protests. Similar measures have been introduced in North Dakota, Iowa, Michigan, Indiana, Colorado, Virginia and Washington state as protests have proliferated in recent months over issues ranging from police shootings to oil pipelines.

Ricardo Lopez • 651-925-5044