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Bill Toughening Penalties For Protesters Clears House

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- The Minnesota House approved tougher criminal penalties Tuesday for protesters who block highways and rail lines.

This comes after hundreds of protesters shut down freeways in the Twin Cities following the controversial police shootings of two black men in 2015 and 2016.

Demonstrators also shut down light rail lines and the entrance to MSP Airport.

Rep. Nick Zerwas, (R) Elk River, decided the misdemeanor penalty for protesting on an interstate is too lenient.

Protesters Shut Down I-94
(credit: CBS)

"That is not a First Amendment protected form of free speech," Zerwas said. "And if you park your Buick across the middle lane of I-94, you deserve to go to jail!"

The bill raises the penalty for blocking a freeway from a misdemeanor to a more-serious gross misdemeanor.

It is the same penalty as crimes of domestic assault, criminal sexual conduct and malicious punishment of a child.

Critics said the protest penalty far outweighs the crime, denouncing the bill for not addressing the racial injustice that caused the demonstrations.

"Plenty of folks said Rosa Parks could have gotten justice without sitting in the front of the bus. Why did she have to be such a nuisance?" said Rep. John Lesch, (DFL) St. Paul.

If this bill passes, protesters who block freeways could get a year in jail.

Gov. Mark Dayton has said he is open to the tougher laws, but criticized Republicans on Tuesday for spending so much time on this issue, and not enough time on school aid and health care.

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