Protesters blocking traffic? Not in my state.
That’s the spirit of a newly filed bill in the Florida Legislature that aims to keep both protesters and drivers out of harm’s way.
Peaceful protests are protected under the First Amendment, but cross the line from the sidewalk to the street without a permit and protesters could have big problems.
The legislation, sponsored by state Sen. George Gainer, a Panama City Republican, would slap traffic-blockers with second degree felonies, punishable by as much as 15 years in prison and $10,000 fines.
Gainer’s bill also would protect drivers who accidentally injure or kill demonstrators while they’re obstructing the normal flow of traffic.
“A motor vehicle operator who unintentionally causes injury or death … is not liable for such an injury or death,” the bill language reads.
The burden of proof? That would fall on the arrested protesters and those hit by vehicles if they opt to sue law enforcement agencies or claim a vehicle collision was on purpose.
Gainer did not respond to requests for comment.
The legislation comes amid a rash of recent headline-grabbing incidents involving protesters in traffic.
Following the election of President Donald Trump, protesters blocked traffic along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, New York City streets outside of Trump Tower and several Los Angeles freeways, among others.
In Florida, thousands of anti-Trump protesters blocked the MacArthur Causeway, a six-lane bridge connecting downtown Miami with South Beach. The obstruction extended to Interstate 95.
In January, South Florida protesters shut down I-95 again.
But Gainer’s legislation would affect more than just Trump demonstrations.
Last fall, activists took to the streets of Tampa to protest the killing of an unarmed black man by local police. In Tallahassee, several truck drivers blocked a busy downtown intersection over a labor dispute. Both events would fall squarely in the crosshairs of Gainer’s bill.
Chris Torres, a Tallahassee defense attorney and former state prosecutor, told Watchdog.org that although the First Amendment guarantees the right to assemble and protest, there are restrictions.
“Protests take place in the street all the time. But you have to get a permit and schedule it precisely to avoid chaotic traffic situations,” he said.
“Deliberately blocking traffic is dangerous, but maybe that’s what they’re trying to do: Force people to pay attention to them,” Torres added.
Similar bills have been filed in several other states, including Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and Washington.
In North Dakota, home of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, a state lawmaker introduced narrower legislation to exempt drivers who unintentionally hit protesters.
“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a driver of a motor vehicle who negligently causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway may not be held liable for any damages,” the bill says.
Civil libertarians worry that the proposals would establish harsh punishments for those venturing outside permitted “free speech zones,” or government-approved protest areas.
“Even without active obstruction of the right to protest, limitations on that right or fear of police intimidation can chill expressive activity and result in self-censorship,” says the American Civil Liberties Union.
In some ways, states may just be catching up to the federal government.
In 2012, Congress passed a bill levying 10-year maximum prison sentences for anyone who knowingly enters a designated restricted area and engages in “disorderly or disruptive conduct” in a way that impedes “government business or official functions.”
The measure, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican, passed with only three no votes and was signed into law by President Barack Obama.