Screens blocking I-355 protesters prompt free-speech debate
One of the true signs of spring is the budding of protesters on the Great Western Trail overpass on I-355 and traffic jams when drivers slow down to gape.
But this year it's different. Dark screening now partially obscures the view of "Impeach Obama" signs waved by demonstrators.
Some resourceful activists rigged up sign extensions that jutted out above the screening last week when I drove by. But it wasn't quite the same. If there were any fist-pumping or thumbs-up gestures, they were hard to see at 40 mph.
The screening can be viewed two ways.
For many drivers who want a steady traffic flow on Veterans Memorial Tollway (I-355) unimpeded by diversions, it's welcome.
"It's a safety issue," said Matt Gorecki, an I-355 regular.
But Fred Schneider, a member of the Overpasses for America group, considers the netting unconstitutional.
"They are trying to squash the First Amendment and free speech," he said. "Epic fail."
Who is "they?" Turns out it's DuPage County, which in March spent $4,500 to install screening on both the Great Western Trail and Prairie Path overpasses on I-355 near Roosevelt Road in Glen Ellyn.
"The screening was added as a safety measure to reduce distractions for drivers on I-355," DuPage Communications Manager Joan Olson said. "We had received complaints from motorists and residents."
Great Western Trail and Prairie Path representatives said hikers and cyclists are taking the screens in stride.
"I have not received any (positive or negative) emails from our members/users," Illinois Prairie Path board member Ken McClurg said. "In my opinion, the view is no worse. If the view to trees, prairie or a stream was obstructed, I'd be bothered. In this case, the screens are only blocking the view to the roadway and cars."
Gorecki, who commutes from Palatine, thinks if every driver focused on the road when it comes to distractions, traffic jams wouldn't be an issue.
"I'm glad DuPage acted, but the bigger safety issue is drivers who hit their brakes," he said.
Overpasses for America, an organization affiliated with the Tea Party, is undeterred.
"Their feeble attempt at stopping us failed. We'll be out there again," Schneider vowed.
Protests on I-355 go both ways on the political spectrum. Two peace demonstrators were arrested in 2007 for disorderly conduct on the Great Western Trail overpass after showing a sign seeking President George W. Bush's impeachment. The charges were later dismissed.
"There's a tension between the constitutional right to be heard and public safety," said Naperville attorney Shawn Collins, who represented the two activists.
"If the county did this because it had good reason to believe that speech (protests and signs) from the bridge is a public safety hazard to drivers passing below on I-355, and not because it wanted to prevent a certain type of speech, then a court would likely conclude that the screen does not violate anyone's right to free speech under the First Amendment," Collins said.
"However, if the screen was installed to prevent a certain type of protest, or to silence a certain side of a political issue, then it might well be found by a court to be a free-speech violation," he added.
Got an opinion on protesters and screens? Of course you do. Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Henry Klich is baffled by the massive pipe looming over Barrington Road at I-90, which is being rebuilt. "It appears to be some sort of large drain pipe," he wrote.
Actually, the structure will "hold the traffic signals for the new, signalized intersection that will be located in the middle of the bridge," Illinois tollway spokesman Dan Rozek replied. "All traffic crossing I-90 on Barrington Road and traffic entering or exiting I-90 will be controlled on the bridge by a single set of traffic signals, which will help improve traffic flow."
Hang out with engineers at a tollway open house to learn about construction this year on Route 390/Elgin-O'Hare Expressway, from 4 to 7 p.m. May 12, at the Elk Grove village hall, 901 Wellington Ave.
Speaking of alert drivers, watch out for lane shifts this week on Route 83 between Mark Street and Industrial Drive in the Wood Dale area as part of the Route 390 project. And forget about any left turns onto Bryn Mawr Avenue.
One more thing
Is it easy to get on and off the bus? Does the bus usually run on time? Say what you really think about Pace bus service in an online survey that involves transit riders nationwide. To participate, go to www.pacebus.com and click on American Bus Benchmarking Group Transit Study.
With gas at blissfully low prices, Americans are ready for a long-overdue road trip this summer, AAA predicts. The association also estimates that fuel should hit a 12-year low come June, July and August. About 35 percent of Americans will travel 50 miles or more on vacation in the next 12 months and 55 percent told AAA they were more likely to drive because of cheap gas.