Iowa General Assembly considers anti-protest bills – 2017

Des Moines, IA

Senate File 111, a bill that would increase penalties for those who block traffic on Iowa’s highways, is being considered by a State Senate Subcommittee on Transportation. The bill, co-sponsored by nine Republican lawmakers, would charge individuals who intentionally block highway traffic with a Class D felony punishable by up to five years in prison. A similar bill, SF 426, was approved and recommended for passage by two subcommittees.

Key Figures

State Senator Jake Chapman, a Republican, is the legislation’s lead sponsor. In addition to representing a portion of southwestern Iowa in the State Senate, Chapman also serves as the chief operating officer of Midwest Ambulance Services. Citing a recent protest against Donald Trump’s election as president, Chapman criticized demonstrations that negatively impact commerce and public safety. “We are concerned about the protesters. We are concerned about emergency medical services being able to get to calls. We are concerned about coming around a curve on the interstate and all of a sudden you have blocked traffic and someone slams on the brakes and a semi comes up from behind and hits them,” he told The Des Moines Register. “Look, we have the right to protest. No one disputes that,” Chapman continued. “We encourage that. But there is an appropriate time and an appropriate place to do so. Interstates are not one of those places. That is what this bill does. It aims to stop that.”

State Senator Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat, opposes the legislation. He believes that the bill is a political reaction to anti-Trump protests and notes that Iowa already has laws in place to prevent disturbances on roads. “…I hope this bill doesn’t go forward. The last thing we need is more penalties on the books,” he told The Des Moines Register.

Rita Bettis, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, raised concerns about how the proposed law would be enforced. “We all know that this legislation was drafted to respond to protesters in Iowa City following the 2016 General Election, and specifically, out of an expressed disagreement with their viewpoints as well as methods,” Bettis told The Register. “What we can say is that even if the law as written is determined to be facially neutral; whether it would be neutral as applied or target First Amendment protected activity is a separate question that could ultimately prohibit its use by law enforcement against protesters or demonstrators, even if it advances into law.”

Further Details

SF 111, introduced in January 2017, was proposed in response to a protest that occurred in November 2016. On November 11, three days after Election Day, more than 100 protesters blocked Interstate Highway 80 to oppose Donald Trump’s agenda, The Register reports. The demonstration blocked all eastbound traffic for 30 minutes. Explaining the motivation of the protesters, one participant in the demonstration told The Register, “[Trump] doesn’t represent me or my values, and I’ve been crying for days.”

SF 111 would impose harsh penalties on those who impede traffic on highways with a posted speed limit of at least 55 miles-per-hour. Those who violate the law could be charged with a Class D felony, which carries a prison sentence and a fine of between $750 and $7,500. Under current law, individuals who create an obstruction on a road may be charged with an injunction and creating a public nuisance. Less severe than the proposed bill, the current law punishes violators with up to two years in prison and a fine of between $625 and $6,250.

While SF 111 remains under consideration by a subcommittee on transportation, SF 426, a similar bill, has gained approval by two subcommittees. This legislation, proposed by the Committee on State Government, also penalizes protesters who obstruct traffic on highways. However, it draws a distinction between first, second, and third offenses. The bill “would classify a first offense as a serious misdemeanor with punishment of up to a year in prison and fine of up to $1,875. Second-time offenders would be charged with an aggravated misdemeanor and third-time violators would face a Class D felony charge,” according to The Des Moines Register.

Outcome

Bill remains under consideration by subcommittee

SF 111 was referred to a subcommittee on transportation in February 2017. The subcommittee has not taken any action on the bill.

Similar legislation approved by two subcommittees and recommended for passage

SF 426 was approved by subcommittees on state government and the judiciary, respectively.

External References:

SF 111

SF 426

Iowa bill: 5 years in prison for highway protesters, The Des Moines Register

Bill cracking down on protesters blocking highways heads to Iowa Senate floor, The Des Moines Register

Bill criminalizing highway protests clears Iowa Senate subcommittee, The Des Moines Register

Bills Across The Country Could Increase Penalties For Protesters, Iowa Public Radio

Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18

October 17, 2017