NASHVILLE — An amended version of a Tennessee bill seeking to crack down on protesters by outlawing "harassment" and providing qualified immunity to some drivers whose vehicles strike protesters was deferred Tuesday until 2022 by the sponsor.
Amid continued questions and concerns including those from a fellow Republican on the GOP-run Judiciary Committee, Sen. Paul Rose, R-Covington, asked that Senate Bill 843 be sent to summer committee for further review.
The bill was brought in the wake of last year's nationwide protests and, in some cities, riots following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after being pinned down for more than nine minutes by a white Minneapolis police officer. A number of Tennessee Republican lawmakers were angry over protests at the state Capitol.
Original provisions of Rose's bill included making it a Class E felony with up to six years imprisonment to obstruct traffic during a protest. Another provision provided legal immunity for a protester's injuries or death by a driver "exercising due care" and who "unintentionally causes injury or death to another person."
Judiciary Committee Chair Mike Bell, R-Riceville, filed an amendment to the bill, which has passed the GOP-led House but encountered problems in the Republican Senate. That amendment decreased some of the bill's original penalties, such as making the obstruction offense a misdemeanor for first-time offenders.
Activist Justin Jones, who has led demonstrations for years both inside and outside Tennessee's Capitol, reminded Bell that the senator himself before entering politics had participated in anti-abortion demonstrations.
Jones, who was once arrested at the Capitol during a protest, also praised Bell for his work on criminal justice issues, including his bill this year that prohibits judges from issuing no-knock warrants and directing that police cannot use chokeholds unless in fear of their lives.
"I don't think you want this bill," Jones said. "I think you are someone who has a conscience on this committee."
In a 2019 interview with the Times Free Press, Bell recalled how his protests in the late 1980s and early 1990s at the then-abortion clinic in Chattanooga led to his arrest when he and fellow abortion opponents linked arms to prevent entry into the facility.
The two Democrats on the committee, Sens. Sara Kyle of Memphis and Katrina Robinson of Memphis, also invoked the name of the late Thelma Harper, a Black former state senator and Metro Nashville councilwoman who died last week and whose body is to lie in state inside the state Capitol on Wednesday.
Harper rose to prominence decades ago while protesting a garbage dump in the Bordeaux section of Nashville, and Kyle waived a photo of Harper on foot confronting a garbage truck.
Robinson told Rose it "seems we were justifying the weaponization of a vehicle."
Rose said he has issues with current law, citing what he said was an incident last year where "one of our colleagues who was surrounded by a group of protesters, I'm told there were 40 or 50, put placards over his vehicle's windows.
"I thought about my family, if it'd been my family, if it'd been one of your family or one of any member of this audience today," Rose said. "Your family and you were in that vehicle and you feared for life of your child, your wife, or your daughter, your grandchildren, your mother, whoever it happened to be, you feared for the life of that person."
Another Republican on the committee, Sen. Kerry Roberts of Springfield, raised concerns about some of the amended bill's provisions.
Rose said that while while he disagrees with President Joe Biden on most things, he does agree with Biden's comments during last year's presidential campaign, quoting Biden as saying "rioting is not protesting, looting is not protesting and those who do it should be prosecuted."
He told the committee that "I sense that you agree with much of this bill but not all of this bill." Saying he was deferring to concerns raised by Sens. Kyle and Robinson, Rose requested the measure be sent to summer committee.
House Republicans, who were the primary proponents of the measure, have yet to weigh in. Lawmakers hope to wrap up their session Wednesday.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.