The HB13 bill, which was introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly in February, builds on legislation that already exists in the state.
It is already illegal to obstruct a “highway, street, sidewalk, railway, waterway, elevator, aisle, or hallway,” but doing so results in a Class A misdemeanor.
The newly proposed bill would make that a Class E felony, punished with up to six years in prison. At the same time, the bill would give anyone operating a vehicle who “unintentionally causes injury or death to another person” blocking a pathway complete immunity from prosecution for the injury or death.
Tennessee tried to implement a similar bill in 2017, but the House version did not pass the Civil Justice Committee and the Senate version did not make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Other similar bills have been proposed in legislatures across the country, but most have not passed.
CNN reached out to state Sen. Jack Johnson and Rep. Ron M. Gant, the sponsors of the Senate and House versions of the bill respectively, for comment. Jackson’s office deferred to Gant’s office, saying the bill is not yet moving in the Senate.
In a statement, Gant claimed the new bill would protect Tennesseans by instituting “law and order.”
“This legislation promotes law and order and protects Tennessee communities against violence by safeguarding public roadways and increasing penalties for those who commit these reprehensible acts against innocent people,” Gant said. “These senseless acts have no place in a civil society.”
The proposed bill goes beyond driver immunity and making pathway obstruction a felony. Under the new bill, “intentionally intimidating or harassing” someone during a “riot” who is not participating would be a Class A misdemeanor, as would throwing an object at someone “with the intent of harming.”
And if that thrown object caused “bodily injury” during the “riot,” it would be a Class E felony under the new bill.
In the past, the American Civil Liberties Union has condemned anti-protest bills such as these, arguing that they are part of a larger attempt to punish protesting.
The ACLU of Tennessee has opposed this legislation as well. In a statement to CNN, Brandon Tucker, the policy director of the chapter, said the bill would suppress protest and the chapter will work hard to “defeat this disturbing bill.”
“This legislation would suppress protest by turning obstruction of traffic into a felony offense, robbing individuals of their right to vote if they are convicted of these new felony charges. It also offers immunity to drivers who run over protesters in the road and criminalizes speech that causes ’emotional distress’ to or ‘frightens’ another person,” Tucker said. “This vague and troubling suppression of free speech can easily be abused, leading to the criminalization of protesters’ words and beliefs.”