Protesters who block Kentucky streets could be charged with a crime, while motorists who run into them could be held criminally and civilly immune, under a bill pre-filed Friday by a Republican state lawmaker.
The language written by Rep. C. Wesley Morgan of Richmond would add to Kentucky’s laws on riots and disorderly conduct.
One part would make it a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, to interfere with the flow of traffic on a public road during a protest or march for which a permit has not been granted. Another part would specify that motorists “may not be held criminally or civilly liable for causing injury or death to a person” who is blocking traffic during such an event, unless it is proven that the motorist ran into the protesters deliberately.
“This is an absolutely immoral bill, and we all know it,” state Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, said Sunday.
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“I don’t understand why my colleagues choose to move in such a fashion when lives are on the line,” Flood said. “We owe it to our constituents to act like statesmen. What we are really saying with bills like this is that it’s OK for us to be at war with one another, to use violence against each other.”
Morgan, first elected to the Kentucky House last year, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday. He represents central Madison County.
Morgan was criticized during the 2017 legislative session for filing a number of bills that would have benefited himself as the owner of liquor stores and a houseboat with a lien against it. He also failed to pay property taxes on that $350,000 houseboat for more than a decade, denying school districts and local governments thousands of dollars each year, according to public records and interviews with officials.
Kentucky’s 2018 legislative session begins in January.
Legislators in at least a half-dozen states, including Tennessee, filed so-called “right-to-drive” bills this year to offer some level of legal protection to motorists who injure or kill protesters blocking the streets. None of those bills became law, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Those bills received more national attention in August after Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when a car allegedly driven by an Ohio man plowed into a crowd of anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville, Va. Heyer and hundreds of others had been demonstrating against a white supremacist rally being held nearby. The man charged with driving the car was seen marching with neo-Nazis and other white supremacists that day.
The bills appear to have started as a backlash to the Black Lives Matter protests that began three years ago after black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. In the demonstrations that followed that and other police shootings, it has become common for protesters to temporarily block traffic, even on some interstate highways.
“These people are nuts to run in front of cars like they do,” North Carolina state Rep. Michael Speciale told the Raleigh News & Observer in April as he voiced support for a bill similar to Morgan’s in that state. “If somebody does bump somebody, why should they be held liable?”
The American Civil Liberties Union has opposed right-to-drive bills in other states, arguing that cities and counties already have the authority, if they choose, to prosecute people for intentionally obstructing cars or pedestrians.
“The purpose of bills like this one is to chill free speech, which is a protected right under the First Amendment,” Kate Miller, program director at the Kentucky ACLU, said Sunday. “And certainly you should not be entitled to hit people with your car just because you have been inconvenienced.”