ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — A Minnesota House committee quietly approved a bill Thursday to enhance the penalty for protesting on a freeway or light rail line.

It’s a measure lawmakers introduced last year after hundreds of people flooded Twin Cities freeways to protest police shootings of black men.

In one case, demonstrators shut down a Twin Cities interstate highway for five hours.

It’s an action one lawmaker notes is already illegal.

“You have no right to park your Buick across four lanes of I-94,” said Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River). “If you believe you have that right, you’re confused. You do not have that right.”

The proposed bill raises the penalty for blocking a freeway, a light rail line or an airport entrance from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

Last year, there was so much controversy about the bill that protesters took over the hearing room and forced the committee to temporarily shut down.

This year, the bill is much less visible, but it’s steadily moving forward.

Critics are calling it a deliberate attempt to shut down the kind of free speech that some people don’t like.

“Sometimes when you are protesting, you do break the law. You do put people at risk. But that’s also how you get people’s attention,” said Rep. John Considine Jr. (D – Mankato).

The bill is now headed for a full House floor vote.

Pat Kessler