A viral post falsely asserts that Republicans are responsible for “passing laws making it legal to run over protesters with your car.” That distorts proposed, but not enacted, legislation in several states offering some protections for drivers who unintentionally injure demonstrators blocking streets.
Is it “legal to run over protesters with your car”?
No, but that’s what a viral meme shared on Facebook claims. The popular post blames Republicans for passing such laws in the aftermath of the deadly attack on protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
“Never forget,” the meme reads. “When a white supremacist murdered a protester by running her over with his car, Republicans responded by passing laws making it legal to run over protesters with your car.”
Republican lawmakers in a handful of states — and with the help of Democratic legislators in one case — did introduce bills that would have afforded some protections to drivers who injure demonstrators blocking traffic. But those measures would have applied to drivers exercising “reasonable care” or “unintentionally” injuring someone who was obstructing traffic, and some were specific to civil charges. All but one that we found were proposed prior to the Charlottesville attack — not after it — and none were ultimately enacted.
The proposals came amid a flurry of various legislative attempts by states to control protests in early 2017.
A bill considered in North Dakota, for example, was introduced in January 2017, following prominent protests against an oil pipeline. That was months before a neo-Nazi plowed his car into protesters demonstrating against white nationalists in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017, killing one woman and injuring others. The driver, James Fields, was convicted in 2018 of killing Heather Heyer and has received two life sentences in prison.
The bill proposed in North Dakota’s House of Representatives said that “a driver of a motor vehicle who, while exercising reasonable care, causes injury or death to an individual who is intentionally obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway may not be held liable for any damages.” It also said a driver who “unintentionally causes injury or death to an individual who is intentionally obstructing” traffic “is not guilty of an offense.”
The measure failed on its second read in February 2017.
States that considered similar proposals include: Tennessee (introduced in February 2017), Florida (introduced in February 2017), North Carolina (introduced in March 2017), Rhode Island (introduced in March 2017), Texas (introduced in July 2017) and Kentucky (introduced in January 2018).
None of them became law.
Some of the bills used very similar language, and the wording applied specifically to unintentional cases. The measures would not have simply made it “legal to run over protesters with your car,” as the meme says.
The North Carolina, Rhode Island and Tennessee bills all applied to a driver “exercising due care” who “injures another person who is participating in a protest or demonstration and is blocking traffic” in a public street. Those measures would’ve protected the driver from only “civil liability” (not criminal charges), but not if the “actions” of the driver “leading to the injury were willful or wanton.”
In Texas, the legislation also protected against civil liability and would not have protected against drivers’ “grossly negligent conduct.” The Florida bill, meanwhile, called for punishing (with a second-degree misdemeanor) protesters who “obstruct or interfere with the regular flow of traffic” without a permit — and proposed liability protection for a driver “who unintentionally causes injury or death” to such unauthorized protesters obstructing traffic.
Kentucky’s bill, the only one we found that was introduced after Charlottesville, proposed that a driver “may not be held criminally or civilly liable for causing injury or death to a person who is obstructing or interfering with” traffic during a protest without a permit — “unless the infliction of the injury or death was intentional.”
The suite of related bills came under fire after the attack in Virginia, with some questioning the need for such legislation and claiming such efforts could provide cover for would-be attackers. Those who had pushed for the bills tried to distance the legislation from the events in Charlottesville.
“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,” the Republican sponsors of that bill, Reps. Justin Burr and Chris Millis, said in an August 2017 statement. “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.”
So, while the Charlottesville attack did renew focus on the legislation, it was not the impetus for the proposals, as the post indicated, and those proposals did not go on to become “laws.”
Florida Senate. “SB 1096, An act relating to obstruction of traffic during a protest or demonstration; creating s. 316.128, F.S.; prohibiting a person from obstructing or interfering with traffic during a certain protest or demonstration; providing criminal penalties; exempting a motor vehicle operator from liability for injury or death to a person who is obstructing or interfering with traffic under certain circumstances; specifying burden of proof; providing an effective date.” (as introduced 21 Feb 2017).
Kentucky General Assembly. “HB 53, An act relating to public protests.” (as introduced 2 Jan 2018).
North Carolina General Assembly. “HB 330, An act providing that a person driving an automobile while exercising due care is immune from civil liability for any injury to another if the injured person was participating in a protest or demonstration and blocking traffic in a public street or highway at the time of the injury.” (as amended 27 Apr 2017).
North Dakota House of Representatives. “HB 1203, A bill for an act to create and enact section 32‑03.2‑02.2 of the North Dakota Century Code, relating to the liability exemption of a motor vehicle driver; and to amend and reenact section 39‑10‑33 of the North Dakota Century Code, relating to pedestrians on roadways.” (as amended 6 Feb 2017).
Rhode Island General Assembly. “HB 5690, An act relating to motor and other vehicles – applicability of traffic regulations.” (as introduced 1 Mar 2017).
Tennessee General Assembly. “HB 0668, An act to amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 19; Title 20; Title 29, Chapter 34; Title 54 and Title 55, relative to civil liability.” (as introduced 8 Feb 2017).
Texas House of Representatives. “HB 250, An act relating to civil liability for injury of a protestor by the operator of a motor vehicle.” (as introduced 20 Jul 2017).