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Tennessee bill would make drivers immune from civil liability if they hit protesters

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CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 7: Demonstrators block Lake Shore Drive as they protest the fatal police shooting of Paul O'Neal August 7, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. O'Neal, an unarmed 18-year-old man was shot and fatally wounded July 28, when Chicago Police officers tried to arrest him for allegedly stealing a Jaguar car from the suburbs. The Chicago Police department released videos of the shooting to the public and media, which was captured by body cameras and dashboard cameras. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – State Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, wants to stop protesters taking to the streets of Tennessee, WSMV reported.

He has filed a bill that says if a driver hits a protester who is blocking traffic in a public right-of-way, then that driver would be immune to civic liability if the demonstrator is hit and hurt, as long as it wasn’t intentional.

“If you want to protest, fine, I am for peaceful protesting, not lawless rioters,” Hill said. “We don’t want anyone to be hurt, but people should not knowingly put themselves in harm’s way when you’ve got moms and dads trying to get their kids to school.”

When protestors took to the sidewalks on West End in Nashville following the executive order calling for a travel ban, they say they made a decision to be peaceful and stay on the sidewalk as people drove by.

But things took a turn when safety volunteers say they were hit by a car that rolled through a cross walk from West End onto Murphy Road.

“These people were legally in a crosswalk at the time that they had the permission to go,” said Julie Franklin, who says she witnessed the incident.

Franklin said the volunteers, who were wearing orange safety vests, were struck while ushering demonstrators across the street in the crosswalk. She said they’d been waiting for the “walk” signal to maintain safety.

Franklin said volunteers jumped on the hood of the man’s car when they were struck, trying to get him to stop. But, the man kept driving.

Spencer DesAutels says he was one of the volunteers who was hit.

“They saw me. They looked right at me,” said Spencer DesAutels, who said he was hit by an older man who was driving with his wife past the protestors. “They stopped, and then they decided that they didn’t want to stop anymore and they just drove through me.”

DesAutels said the man drove with the volunteers on the hood of his car until police made him stop.

“My reaction was I don’t want to be caught underneath this car. It was a big car, so I got up on the hood of the car to say I’m not going to get run over any further than he hit,” DesAutels said.

“I am not advocating anyone being hurt or run over. That’s very, very silly that anyone would think that,” Hill said Friday. “Peaceful protesters have nothing to be concerned about. … This is an attempt to have some public safety and inject some common sense.”

Still, DesAutels, Williams and Franklin feel it opens the door for other drivers to possibly hurt protestors.

“I think it’s inhumane to treat human beings like they’re just traffic cones that you just don’t want to abide by, and that’s exactly what that man did,” Franklin said.

Williams and DesAutels believe the move is politically motivated.

“I think this bill shows that they’re scared. That they know that the people have a voice and it’s being heard, and they don’t like it,” Williams said.

Both Rep. Hill and Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, who is the co-sponsor, defended the measure in written statements.

Ketron wrote:

We believe that citizens have the right to protest. There is a procedure for peaceful protests and the purpose of that process is to protect the safety of our citizens. Protesters have no right to be in the middle of the road or our highways for their own safety and the safety of the traveling public.

The bill was introduced Thursday and passed first consideration in the state Senate.


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