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updated: 8/18/2014 5:05 AM

Pyke: Highway bridge protests exercise free speech, but irk drivers

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  • Video: Overpass Messages

  • Mike Malone of Overpasses for America sets up to protest against President Barack Obama on the Great Western Trail foot bridge over I-355.

       Mike Malone of Overpasses for America sets up to protest against President Barack Obama on the Great Western Trail foot bridge over I-355.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Sally Dietz of Overpasses for America faces the northbound lanes over I-355 on the Great Western Trail foot bridge during a protest against President Barack Obama. Illinois State Police said there's nothing illegal about the attention-getting tactics, although the protests do slow traffic.

       Sally Dietz of Overpasses for America faces the northbound lanes over I-355 on the Great Western Trail foot bridge during a protest against President Barack Obama. Illinois State Police said there's nothing illegal about the attention-getting tactics, although the protests do slow traffic.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • The Overpasses for America group protests against President Barack Obama on the Great Western Trail foot bridge over I-355. Illinois State Police said there's nothing illegal about the attention-getting tactics, although the protests do slow traffic.

       The Overpasses for America group protests against President Barack Obama on the Great Western Trail foot bridge over I-355. Illinois State Police said there's nothing illegal about the attention-getting tactics, although the protests do slow traffic.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 

Rush hour on southbound I-355 near Lombard. Traffic is moving at a decent clip when it inexplicably jams up.

Accident? Roadwork? Neither. Instead, it's a gaper's block as drivers gawk at the "Impeach Obama" signs atop a pedestrian bridge.

It's not about gridlock; it's about free speech, says Fred Schneider, a DuPage businessman who helped organize the demonstration Friday afternoon on the Great Western Trail overpass at I-355.

"We have a constitutional right to do what we do," Schneider said.

As to complaints the protests cause delays and accidents, Schneider counters that "traffic is already a mess," which gives him a captive audience.

Commuter Dan Sapyta, who takes I-355 between Elk Grove Village and I-55 twice daily, is an unwilling member of that audience. And he attributes one accident he drove by to demonstrators.

"If you want to protest, great," Sapyta said. "But don't create a safety hazard and put people's lives in jeopardy. Go to the park and protest."

Illinois State Police agree with Schneider that signs on a public right of way are perfectly legal. As to the traffic implications?

"It does cause people to slow down and not pay attention," District 15 Lt. Bob Meeder said. "There are accidents at that location, at that time."

There's no set schedule, but Schneider's group has frequently appeared at rush hour Fridays on the Great Western Trail bridge. They've also targeted an overpass at the Eisenhower Expressway in Oak Park.

While Schneider opposes President Barack Obama, protests on I-355 run both sides of the political spectrum.

Back in 2007, two peace activists who demonstrated on the Great Western Trail bridge were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct after displaying a sign calling for President George W. Bush's impeachment.

A DuPage judge later dismissed the charges, which included allegations the pair dropped objects on the road.

"Whether you're protesting the Iraq War, as Democrats did when Bush was president, or criticizing Obama, the First Amendment is politically neutral," said Naperville attorney Shawn Collins, who represented the two activists.

"Throughout America's history, one of the places where people have exercised their rights of free speech is by the roadways -- that's where the people are. Just look where politicians buy billboards during elections."

No permit is required to assemble on the foot bridge, Meeder said, noting that "the signs aren't anything that's belligerent or degrading. It's their constitutional right, and unless there's something illegal being done we are not able to move them from the area."

Schneider -- who is with Overpasses for America, a Tea Party-affiliated organization also involved in recent demonstrations against immigration reform -- acknowledges his cause isn't always popular.

"We do have people come to the bridge and scream and yell at us. If you give a thumbs-up, we give one. If you give us a finger, we wave to you."

My advice? Check the traffic reports before you leave work. And keep your eyes on the road. Are you honking with the demonstrators or at them? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com and share your thoughts.

Your voice

Here are two different takes on safety at rail crossings related to last week's column.

Toni Pariso of North Aurora suggests using cameras at railway crossings that intersect with roads. "Everyone will be ticketed if they neglect to obey the crossing arms or speed ahead to beat the train -- a picture will document their dangerous, against-the-law crossing and a fine attached!" she wrote.

Meanwhile Karl Bruhn of Batavia wrote, "There are railroad gates, and bell sounds, and flashing lights. People KNOW (or should know) about the dangers of crossing tracks when trains are coming. But I don't think we (the taxpayers) should make any additional provisions. I feel sorry for the railroad engineers who hit those people, and for the commuters who have to wait for hours to get their train back and running."

Gridlock alert

Speaking of traffic, the Church Road bridge on I-88 in Aurora closes this week for reconstruction and won't open until the end of the year. Detours will be posted.

You should know

Illinois received a rare honor this month when 72 miles of trails along Lake Michigan were designated as part of the U.S. Bicycle Route System. The new U.S. Bicycle Route 36/37 is the first national bike trail created in Illinois since 1982. The route includes Chicago and is part of a national system that will eventually stretch 50,000 miles.

The numbers aren't good

The latest news on train collisions with vehicles and pedestrians at railway crossings isn't encouraging. Data from the Illinois Commerce Commission from January through May shows a 21 percent increase, with 62 occurrences this year compared to 51 during the same period in 2013. The 62 collisions include 31 with cars, 15 with trucks and eight involving pedestrians.

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