Imposing any kind of restriction to free speech and the right to peaceful protest must be weighed carefully in a democratic society. In most instances, the scales must tip toward permitting dissent.
But that does not extend to all types of protest. As Gov. Mark Dayton examines the pros and cons of a bill that would enhance penalties for protesters who block highways or airport access in Minnesota, he should keep the greater good in mind and sign the legislation.
Protest is foundational to a healthy democracy. By its nature, protest is disruptive. It must be so to gain attention. Nothing rings more hollow than the “designated protest areas” seen during political conventions, with demonstrators neatly penned in where they can be held under tight control and their message kept at a distance that robs their action of its power.
But protests that intentionally spill onto major highways, blocking ramps and lanes, often at peak travel times, present an imminent and intentional danger to the protesters, law enforcement officers and the public at large. Passions run high in such situations, and one infuriated or inattentive motorist is all it would take to turn a protest into a full-scale tragedy.
Those who talk about drivers being “inconvenienced” are being disingenuous and dismissive of legitimate concerns. Whether it’s an ambulance driver heading to a medical emergency or a parent picking up a waiting child or perhaps a worker who could lose their job for being late, motorists have a right to expect that they will not be trapped for who knows how long by blockages in all lanes and both directions of a major freeway. Unlike protests that block city streets, vehicles caught in a highway blockage have nowhere to go. That makes for a dangerous situation that presents far more than an inconvenience.
Blocking highways is already a misdemeanor. But that has proved an insufficient deterrent. Making a violation a gross misdemeanor, with its higher penalties, should have an effect. It’s important to remember that law enforcement officers on the scene can determine at what point to begin arrests and that the higher penalty of $3,000 is a ceiling, not a floor. Judges retain the ability to scale the fine in a way that is appropriate for the transgression.
As the Star Tribune Editorial Board has noted when commenting on the Second Amendment, even constitutional rights are not absolute. The ACLU of Minnesota, in informing potential protesters of their rights, notes that “[t]he First Amendment does not protect speech that is combined with the violation of established laws such as trespassing, disobeying or interfering with a lawful order by a police officer.” Neither does it protect acts of protest that endanger others.
That said, those who have blocked highways in Minnesota as part of the Black Lives Matter movement are not to be dismissed. Their cause is a grave one that should concern every Minnesotan. We support their right to protest the actions that have brought such grievous harm to them, their community and, by extension, all of society. Their actions have brought greater attention to an issue that has escaped the spotlight for too long.