North Carolina bill that could protect drivers during protests hits snag after Charlottesville

It is part of a wave of proposed legislation following anti-Trump protests.

ByABC News
August 16, 2017, 11:18 AM

— -- A North Carolina bill that could protect drivers who hit protesters may have hit a snag, following a highly-publicized incident involving an Ohio man who police say deliberately accelerated his car into a crowd of counterprotesters on Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing an activist and injuring others.

The bill, which was approved by the North Carolina House of Representatives in April by a 67-48 vote, would make drivers immune from civil liability for causing injuries to protesters who are blocking roadways if the driver is “exercising due care" in navigating. It does not protect drivers if the protesters have a permit to demonstrate in the roadway, or if the driver’s actions resulting in injuries are “willful or wanton.”

The bill still, however, has to clear the Senate Rules and Operations Committee before reaching the State Senate, and State Sen. Bill Rabon, the committee’s chairman, indicated this week that it is unlikely to proceed.

“As far as I can recall, none of the House sponsors have asked for this bill to be heard in the Senate, and there are no plans to move it forward,” Rabon, a Republican, told the paper through a spokesperson.

ABC News reached out to Rabon for further comment but did not immediately receive a response.

The news was welcomed by Democrats like State Senator Mike Woodard, who told ABC News in a phone interview that it was "poorly drafted" and left people with a bad impression after the events that took place over the weekend.

"Certainly, now after [Charlottesville], this is not a time to be having that conversation," Woodard said about the bill.

The news was also welcomed by rights groups, who argue that House Bill 330 is designed to discourage free speech.

Sarah Gillooly, the policy director for the ACLU North Carolina, said to ABC News in response to a question about the bill's viability that "we certainly hope it's dead."

"The bill was intended to have a chilling effect on people that would discourage them from exercising their First Amendment right to protest," Gillooly said. "It's specifically designed to keep people off the streets."

She alleged that the bill was not only a response to the larger-scale protests that followed President Trump's election, but also an attempt to stifle local uprisings, like the protests that took place in Charlotte after the police shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott, an African-American man.

North Carolina State Representatives Justin Burr and Chris Millis, the two Republicans who introduced the bill, are still eager to see it passed.

The reps released a joint statement about the bill, saying that the recent controversy over it was "a gross mischaracterization."

"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 statement said. "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."

The statement rejects the ACLU's argument that the bill is an attempt to weaken free speech rights, saying that it "[respects] the right to protest according to the 1st Amendment."

It went on, "We denounce the violence, racism, and acts displayed in Charlottesville that run antithetical to American ideals of peaceful demonstration and the right to free speech. Our thoughts and prayers are with those killed and injured, their families, and our nation as we grieve the tragic events perpetuated by those that wish to divide us."

Legislators in Texas, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Florida and North Dakota have introduced similar bills to HB330 and, so far, those attempts have produced underwhelming results.

Two different Florida bills died in committee, the North Dakota bill failed to clear the State House of Representatives, and the Rhode Island bill was placed on hold for further study. The Texas bill was referred to committee in March and its status is pending.

The Tennessee bill died in committee, and was referred to the State Senate, where its status is also pending.

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