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Tennessee proposes bill to protect drivers who unintentionally hit protesters blocking streets

The local ACLU branch called it a "dangerous anti-protest" bill that "targets peaceful assembly."
Protesters are seen marching upon the Tennessee State Capitol building on June 4, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn.
Protesters marching on the Tennessee State Capitol last June in Nashville.Jason Kempin / Getty Images file

The Tennessee legislature is attempting to crack down on protesters by proposing a bill that would make it a felony to obstruct a highway and grant immunity to drivers who unintentionally injure or kill someone blocking a road.

Jamming a highway, street or sidewalk is a misdemeanor in the state, but the proposed legislation would up the punishment to a mandatory $3,000 fine. The proposal also would allow a driver who "unintentionally causes injury or death” to a person obstructing a roadway to be exempt from prosecution.

The proposed bill comes after a year of demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice across the country, and state Rep. Ron M. Gant, the bill's sponsor, said it would promote "law and order."

Gant did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment.

Additionally, the bill would make it a misdemeanor to throw an object at an individual with the intent to harm the person or "intentionally intimidating or harassing" someone who is not participating in a "riot" will result in a misdemeanor.

Brandon Tucker, policy director at the ACLU of Tennessee, called the proposal a "dangerous anti-protest" bill that "targets peaceful assembly."

"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," Tucker said. "This vague and troubling suppression of free speech can easily be abused, leading to the criminalization of protesters' words and beliefs."

The proposed legislation will next be heard in state Senate and House committees.