NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WZTV) —Tennessee lawmakers are considering a bill that would bring criminal immunity to drivers who hit protesters illegally blocking the road.
The bill says drivers won’t face prosecution if they hurt or kill a protester illegally blocking a roadway if the driver ‘"exercises due caution" and hits them unintentionally.
Lawmakers supporting the bill say it protects drivers from harm if they’re targeted during a protest.
“If you’re intentionally cause harm this bill won't cover you, that’s not what we’re trying to do here,” Representative William Lamberth said in a recent hearing on the bill.
Lawmakers discussed the bill in a criminal justice subcommittee meeting. Representative Bruce Griffey, who co-sponsored the bill, said he wanted stronger language to protect people trying to drive away from protests.
“Maybe [we] add a provision if someone is trying to flee the situation to avoid the life threatening situation and they happen to hurt someone in the course of fleeing,” Griffey said.
Both the ACLU and NAACP of Tennessee are against this bill, which they say unfairly targets social justice advocates.
“It’s the republican response to the social justice protests a year ago, but nothing to the insurrection we saw in Washington D.C.,” NAACP Tennessee legal redress Van Turner said.
The bill also strengthens punishments on protesters. It would upgrade penalties for illegally blocking streets from a misdemeanor to a class E felony. That brings the maximum penalty from $500 to $3,000, and the person would lose their right to vote.
“I shouldn’t lose my right to vote because I’m exercising my first amendment right to peacefully assemble in a protest,” Turner said.
The bill also creates new laws, including making it illegal to throw something at someone during a protest, and making it illegal to harass someone nearby who isn’t part of the protest.
The ACLU's Policy Director Brandon Tucker issued the following statement on the bill:
The ACLU of Tennessee strongly opposes this dangerous anti-protest bill, which targets peaceful assembly and undermines Tennessee’s long-practiced tradition of nonviolent resistance. This legislation would suppress protest by turning obstruction of traffic into a felony offense, robbing individuals of their right to vote if they are convicted of these new felony charges. It also offers immunity to drivers who run over protesters in the road and criminalizes speech that causes 'emotional distress' to or 'frightens' another person. This vague and troubling suppression of free speech can easily be abused, leading to the criminalization of protesters’ words and beliefs. As was demonstrated this past summer, the government does not need more tools to criminalize, abuse or potentially kill protesters. We will be working hard to defeat this disturbing bill.
FOX 17 News reached out to the lawmakers sponsoring the bill. Senator Jack Johnson’s office deferred to his co-sponsor, Representative Ron Gant, who did not return phone calls or emails.