Dunleavy introduces bill to crack down on protests blocking public spaces

A woman with a black jacket on speaks into a megaphone, held by a person in a yellow shirt.
Alyssa Sappenfield Leads a rally at Boney Courthouse with help from Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition organizer Arleigh Hitchcock. June 27, 2023. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy introduced a bill Wednesday taking aim at protestors and others who block highways and other public avenues.

The bill would create the new crime of “obstruction of free passage in public places.” It would apply to anyone who “knowingly renders a public place impassable or passable only with unreasonable inconvenience or hazard.” It would be a misdemeanor, carrying a maximum penalty of up to a year in prison and a $25,000 fine. 

Dunleavy said in a news release that the bill is meant to ensure that public spaces remain accessible.

“Alaskans have a constitutional liberty interest in freely moving about the State,” Dunleavy said in a letter to the Legislature announcing the bill. “This bill will protect the right to freedom of movement against infringement by increasing and expanding existing criminal prohibitions on obstructing public places and rights of way and by establishing new civil liability for obstruction of public places.”

Several states have passed similar bills in recent years, leading to criticism from civil liberties groups who say they improperly restrict protected speech.

The bill would also stiffen existing penalties for blocking highways, navigable waters and airport runways. Obstructing a highway is currently a violation, akin to a traffic ticket. The bill would upgrade highway obstruction to a misdemeanor in most cases — and a felony if the protest interferes with emergency response or puts someone at risk of injury.

First-degree trespassing would also become a felony if it puts others at risk or interferes with emergency responders.

The bill would also allow drivers to sue people who block highways. Drivers who get caught in a roadblock would be entitled to sue each protestor for $10,000 for the inconvenience. If the roadblock results in someone’s death, they could sue for up to $500,000. Organizers would also be subject to lawsuits, even if they don’t directly participate.

The bill has been referred to the House Transportation and Judiciary Committees.

Eric Stone covers state government, tracking the Alaska Legislature, state policy and its impact on all Alaskans. Reach him at estone@alaskapublic.org.

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