JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri lawmakers are considering a bill that would increase penalties for protesters who block highways.
A Missouri Senate committee heard the bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Jeanie Riddle this week, the Columbia Missourian reported .
The proposed legislation would make it a Class A misdemeanor on first offense if a person obstructs an interstate highway or the pathway to or from an emergency medical services provider. The punishment would be a fine of up to $5,000 or imprisonment for up to 30 days.
Intentionally impeding traffic would be a Class B misdemeanor on first offense and a Class A misdemeanor on second offense under current state law.
The bill is in response to requests of those concerned that highway blockage by protesters would restrict access to medical services in cases of emergencies, according to Riddle.
"When protests lead to loss of life or injury, that is unacceptable," she said.
The tactic of protesters blocking highways was prominently used in the Ferguson protests of 2014. Activists more recently tried to block a downtown St. Louis highway in September after former police officer Jason Stockley was acquitted of charges in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith.
Opponents of the bill have questioned its impact on First Amendment rights and said the current law is enough punishment. Protesters blocking highways are often arrested for trespassing or disobeying orders as well, said Sara Baker, policy director of Missouri's American Civil Liberties Union.
"We are very concerned about the large fine and the mandatory jail time that this invokes," Baker said. "We think that this is targeting a selective form of protest, and it might not be content-neutral."