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Bigger penalty for freeway protesters is closer to reality

Protest on a freeway or airport road, and it could be a more serious crime.

More serious penalties for protesting have moved a step closer to being implemented.

Lawmakers in the House voted to keep language in a big public safety bill that makes blocking freeways or airport roads a more serious crime.

The language (starting at line 68.16 here) makes it a gross misdemeanor for anyone to interfere with or obstruct traffic on a freeway or airport property road – that’s a penalty of up to a year in jail and $3,000 in fines. Right now it's simply a misdemeanor, which is a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and/or $1,000 fine.

These new regulations would kick in Aug. 1 of 2017.

The proposal, which has taken a few forms during this legislative session, has generally been forwarded by Republicans like Rep. Nick Zerwas. Zerwas, who is from Elk River, argued the current penalties clearly don't deter the behavior. He also said it could put people's lives at risk if emergency vehicles are stopped from using the freeway during a protest.

Democrats in the House moved to strip that part out of the public safety bill Monday, but were voted down 75-56 after three hours of debate, Rep. John Lesch tweeted.

"Free speech got a bloody nose today, courtesy of @mnhousegop," Lesch, a Democrat added.

Democrats have argued the bill limits people’s First Amendment rights, and disproportionately affect people of color. Activists have also said blocking highways draws more attention to their cause because it inconveniences people – if they protested somewhere else, people might not notice, Market Watch reported.

The proposals come after the recent police shootings of Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, and other black men, which led to demonstrations on the highway, at the airport and in streets.

As mentioned above, the new law is part of a broader public safety and security bill. That bill cleared the House on a 94-37 vote.

The Senate has passed its own version of a public safety bill. For it to become law, the House and Senate versions will have match, meaning the chambers will have to work out a compromise. Then Gov. Mark Dayton will have to sign it.

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