Dayton is open to bill penalizing protests on freeways

Gov. Mark Dayton said Wednesday he is open to legislation declaring it unlawful to stage protests that spill onto freeways or tie up airport access roads as long as it doesn’t become a “dragnet” to quash dissent.

In an interview with MPR News, Dayton said his decision on signing the measure will depend on how lawmakers word their bill. Last year, he objected to a proposal during final negotiations with the Republican-led Legislature, and it got set aside in the end.

“The language last year was too broad and too vague and could be misused to restrict people’s right to lawful, free assembly,” Dayton said, adding, “If it’s going to be just sort of a broader dragnet to limit people’s First Amendment rights, I’m not going to be supportive.”

But Dayton said that there is room for some restrictions in the name of public safety.

“People who are driving at reasonable but proper speeds come around the corner but suddenly traffic is halted, there is a public safety risk and there is a risk to law enforcement,” he said.

As for the protesters, he said, “they would have to be responsible about where they choose to launch their protests. I would define it very carefully and specifically that shutting down an interstate freeway or access to an airport constitutes an unlawful act.”

The Minnesota House could vote at any point on a protest bill sponsored by Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River. It makes it a gross misdemeanor to interfere with or obstruct traffic on freeways and ramps, along airport access roads and on dedicated transit routes.

The bill is a response to several protests in recent years — some after high-profile police shootings — that moved onto Minnesota interstates or disrupted other traffic.

Informed of Dayton’s comments, Zerwas said they give him optimism that something can become law this year.

“Minnesotans expect to be able to drive on the freeway. They expect to be able to drive to the airport to make a flight or to pick up a loved one,” Zerwas said. “And they expect to be able to use public transportation in a convenient and easy way that isn’t delayed by people using bicycle lock to chain their necks together to prevent movement of the train.”

Many legislative Democrats have pushed back on the bill as a crackdown on free speech.

A gross misdemeanor charge can result in up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

In the interview, which covered a range of issues being debated this session, Dayton reiterated his opposition to a bill that expands what constitutes legal fireworks for purchase in the state. He said he is also against a bill promoted by abortion opponents that would require physicians to inform women of their right to see ultrasound pictures prior to an abortion.

Dayton said he is partial to groups that represent medical professionals who argue that the requirement “intrudes on the doctor-patient relationship and there should not be politicians mucking around in what the relationship is between a physician and his or her patients. I think that is a prudent stance, and I would not support that legislation.”

The ultrasound bill was endorsed Tuesday night by a House health committee. Minnesota Citizens Concerned For Life legislative director Andrea Rau said more than two dozen states have such a law.

“Ultrasound provides women with factual medical information,” Rau said. “When women have more information prior to having an abortion, they can be more confident in making a decision best for them, and less likely to make a decision they will regret.”