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Heather Heyer memorial

Heather Heyer was killed by a motorist and suspected Nazi sympathizer while she counter-protested the violent gatherings of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

After Charlottesville, Republicans Defend Bills to Protect Drivers Who Hit Protesters

Despite Heather Heyer's death, GOP still standing by controversial proposals

Jessica Corbett

Following Heather Heyer death on Saturday—killed when a suspected Nazi sympathizer allegedly drove his car into a crowd of people counter-protesting violent white supremacist gatherings in Charlottesville, Virginia—Republican lawmakers have doubled down on proposals that critics say offer immunity from liability to drivers who run down protestors.

Largely in response to mass demonstrations by Black Lives Matter activists and water protectors protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, this year state legislators in Florida, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Texas introduced bills designed to protect motorists who strike people demonstrating on roads.

On Sunday, Texas State Rep. Pat Fallon defended his proposal (pdf)—which was recently referred to committee—and accused critics of not knowing "the difference between lawfully protesting in a street and illegally blocking a [highway]," according to a screenshot published by The Intercept (his original posts on Twitter and Facebook have been deleted).

Fallon's proposal states:

A person operating a motor vehicle who injures another person with the motor vehicle is not liable for the injury if, at the time of the injury:(1) the person operating the motor vehicle was exercising due care; and (2)  the person injured was blocking traffic in a public right-of-way while participating in a protest or demonstration.

North Carolina's measure passed the state's House in April, in light of Heyer's death in Charlottesville, the chairman of the state Senate's rules and operations committee told News & Observer in a statement on Monday, "there are no plans to move it forward."

Even so, the bill's co-sponsors, state Reps. Justin Burr and Chris Millis, defended their legislation in a statement to The Intercept Monday:

It is intellectually dishonest and a gross mischaracterization to portray North Carolina House Bill 330 as a protection measure for the act of violence that occurred in Charlottesville this past weekend.... Any individual who committed a deliberate or willful act, such as what happened this weekend in Charlottesville, would face appropriately severe criminal and civil liabilities.

Although legal experts have also said it appears unlikely that the North Carolina measure would enable drivers who intentionally strike protestors to evade prosecution, critics, including Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper—who has promised to veto the proposal if it reaches his desk—say it "sends the wrong message and opens the door to potentially serious consequences." 

Pointing to incidents in Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, and South Carolina, Henry Grabar argues in a Slate piece published Monday that there exists "a long-running right-wing fantasy of running over protesters, especially members of Black Lives Matter who have blocked intersections and highways during rallies."

Earlier this week, FOX News and the Daily Caller came under fire for featuring a video that celebrated running over demonstrators. The Daily Caller included the caption: "Here's a compilation of liberal protesters getting pushed out of the way by cars and trucks. Study the technique; it may prove useful in the next four years."

The legislative trend to protect drivers who hit protesters started in January, when lawmakers in North Dakota introduced House Bill 1203 (pdf), which was defeated by a slim margin the next month.

The bill stated:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a driver of a motor vehicle who unintentionally causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway, is not guilty of an offense.

Despite its defeat, the other five states soon followed suit.

"It's not clear if all of these bills were part of some coordinated effort by a larger group or if legislators are simply cribbing ideas from each other, but either way, it's not a coincidence," Paul Blest wrote for The Outline, noting that the original versions of the bills in Tennessee, Rhode Island, and North Carolina "were strikingly similar, even down to the language used" and all were introduced by Republicans, with two Rhode Island Democrats signing on as co-sponsors.

The measures in Tennessee (pdf) and Florida (pdf) died in committee, while the Rhode Island bill has been held for "further study."

Although half of the driver protection measures have been defeated, they come as part of a broader wave of state-level anti-protest bills, including efforts in five states to criminalize peaceful protest.

By February, the Washington Post had documented Republican lawmakers' efforts to curb protester rights in 18 states. The ACLU mapped developments with anti-protest legislative measures through late June:

ACLU map

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