Republicans in 6 states are trying to protect drivers who hit protesters

The killing in Charlottesville occurred as GOP states push laws to penalize nonviolent demonstration.

Rescue personnel help injured people after a car ran into a large group of protesters after an white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.  CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
Rescue personnel help injured people after a car ran into a large group of protesters after an white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

As white nationalists and counter-protesters clashed in Charlottesville on Saturday, 20-year old James Field allegedly got into his car and plowed through a crowded street, killing a 32-year old woman and injuring 19 others.

Fields was arrested Saturday and charged with second-degree murder. Lawmakers on both sides denounced the driver’s actions, with Republicans in Congress labeling the incident a “terror attack” and calling for a Department of Justice investigation into the violence. With the exception of the president, who condemned violence on “many sides”, the consensus was that a person should not be allowed to drive a car through a crowd, no matter the motive or intentions.

But not everyone agrees with that statement. State lawmakers in at least six GOP-controlled states have pushed for laws this year that would shield drivers who hit protesters. The bills are part of a wave of anti-protest proposals introduced since the rise of the Black Lives Matter and anti-Trump resistance movements.

Two Republican lawmakers in North Dakota started the trend in January when they introduced a bill that would protect motorists who hit pedestrians blocking traffic, as long as the consequences are unintentional.  State Rep. Keith Kempenich (R) said he authored the legislation after his mother-in-law was swarmed on a roadway by people protesting the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.

“A driver of a motor vehicle who negligently causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway may not be held liable for any damages,” the proposed law read.

The bill was rejected in a 41-50 vote in February, but not before it inspired similar legislation in other red states across the country.

In Tennessee, lawmakers proposed a measure to protect drivers from civil liability after a motorist ran into safety workers at a rally against President Trump’s travel ban in Nashville. Police said that five or six protesters ended up on top of an SUV before the driver, who was not arrested, left the scene. The bill failed in a House committee in March.

Then in late April, after Black Lives Matter activists blocked streets and highways to protest the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, the North Carolina House approved legislation in a 67-48 vote that would also shield drivers from charges if they hit protesters while exercising “due care.”

“These people are nuts to run in front of cars like they do,” state Rep. Michael Speciale (R) said in support of the bill, according to the News & Observer. “If somebody does bump somebody, why should they be held liable?”

The state senate has not yet taken up the proposal.

According to The Outline, lawmakers in Florida, Rhode Island, and Texas have also flirted with similar measures this year. In Florida, a bill died in committee that would have prohibited lawsuits against drivers who “unintentionally” hit protesters, putting the burden of proof on the protesters. A proposal in Rhode Island, meanwhile, has been held for “further study.” And a bill in Texas, proposed in July, was recently referred to committee.

Shielding drivers from liability is not the only way Republican states have attempted to crack down on peaceful protests since the start of the Trump presidency. According to the Washington Post, Republican lawmakers in at least 18 states have introduced bills to crack down on protesters. Among those proposals are bills that would allow cities to sue protesters in order to collect money to pay police forces required at demonstrations, increase the potential penalty for nonviolent demonstrations, and increase fines against picketers. Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, told ThinkProgress in January that she found it troubling that states would prioritize anti-free speech legislation at the beginning of their legislative sessions.

“This is a marked uptick in bills that would criminalize or penalize protected speech and protest, and every person should be alarmed at that trend,” she said, calling the bills unconstitutional. “We should also be alarmed by the attitude they betray, which is that when Americans get out into the streets and make their voices heard — recently, in record numbers — their elected representatives’ response is not to listen to those concerns but to attempt to silence and criminalize them.”