If passed, Representative Justin Price‘s bill, H5690, “would provide that a person driving an automobile who is exercising due care and injures another person who is participating in a protest or demonstration and is blocking traffic in a public right-of-way shall be immune from civil liability for such injury.” Price is a Republican representing District 39, which includes Richmond, Exeter and a portion of Hopkinton.
State law already exempts drivers “exercising due care” from civil liability in the event of bodily injury, so the law is at best redundant, but at its worst the bill seems to be excusing bad behavior by drivers who do not like being inconvenienced by protesters.
“This stems back to 2014, when we had some protesters blocking 95 in Providence,” said Price by way of explanation, “It’s really a safety issue… During this protest I was stuck in traffic, I witnessed cars traveling south in a northbound lane, exiting on on-ramps, just because people are confused, scared… protests can very quickly become a riot, so people want to not be involved in that so if someone is demonstrating due care, they should be able to pass through… peaceful protests… peaceful protests should let people pass through and there would be no injuries… so I feel that this bill… people should be able to protest and also proceed, travel freely without any civil liability.”
Shanna Wells, a local organizer who helped pull off the Million Woman March in February, was the first of eight people testifying against Price’s bill. No one spoke in favor. Wells called the bill “poorly conceived” and said the bill threatens the protections the American public enjoys under the Bill of Rights. “It’s no secret that since November of 2016 there has been an increase in peaceable assemblies and petitions for redress of grievances. A majority of those actions have been led and attended by those who are identified as politically left. The majority of this bill’s original sponsors are from the GOP and so the submission of this bill has the chill of censorship around it and sends a tacit message that its okay to hit protesters with your car. Maybe this time those protesters are liberals, but maybe next time they’ll be conservative…”
Price was visibly agitated by much of what Wells’ said. As she finished, Price asked, “So you consider peaceful protest blocking cars on 95?”
“I would consider peaceful protest means there’s no violence involved in their protesting,” said Wells.
When Steven Brown of the RI ACLU finished his testimony, Price asked if people blocking the highway are engaged in peaceful protest, but didn’t end there. He wanted to know if Brown believed that people blocking the highway have “more rights” than people traveling on the highway.
As Brown attempted to answer, Price cut him off. “But if you’re illegally, if you’re illegally, if you’re violating the law…”
“That’s making an excuse for someone to run you over,” said Brown.
“I’m not- Does it say ‘run you over?'” asked Price, angrily pointing at the bill on his screen, “Does it say ‘run you over?'” As Brown attempted to answer, Price merely repeated the question again, drowning him out. When Rep Edie Ajello, who was chairing the committee at that moment, attempted to intervene, (Chair Cale Keable was temporarily out of the room) Price asked Ajello, “Does it say ‘run you over?'”
“It does not,” admitted Brown. “People blocking the street because of a protest or demonstration should not lose any rights they have or be chilled from engaging in [a protest or demonstration] as opposed to somebody who’s blocking the street along with many others because they’re celebrating the Patriots. I think that is a clear violation of the First Amendment, and an attempt to chill protests and demonstrations, the exercise of free speech rights.”
Price asked if not passing the legislation “chills people traveling in their daily lives when there are protesters blocking them and they’re going to be held liable for gradually moving through a protest?”
Chair Keable interrupted then. “Representative Price, stay on the bill.”
“This is the bill!” objected Price.
When Michael Araujo, executive director of RI Jobs With Justice talked about the bill allowing drivers to “run over people” Price exploded once again.
“Does this say ‘run over people?'” asked Price, “Does this say ‘run over people?'”
“It doesn’t say ‘run over people.'” admitted Araujo.
“Why are you saying ‘run over people?'”
“Because it eliminates a penalty for killing,” said Araujo. “Tell me how it does not do that.”
“Did you read the bill?” asked Price.
“I did read the bill,” said Araujo. “I also read the first version of that bill from North Dakota. And it says the same thing.”
As Araujo finished, Price asked, “Do you think blocking highways is safe?”
“I’d give you the example of Dr. Martin Luther King,” said Araujo.
Price cut Araujo off. “You think your First Amendment right is more…”
“Representative Price,” said Chair Keable, “Your question is not on your bill. If you want to put something in that criminalizes protest, that’s a different bill. Your bill is about driving.”
“Right,” said Price.
“If you want to ask him about the morality and illegality of protest, that’s not what this bill is,” said Keable.
“First off,” said Price, “This bill is because I was stuck in that protest…”
“The Black Lives Matter protest?” asked Araujo.
“Whoever blocked the road out there,” said Price, “It was a protest, close to being a riot, I would say. I was stuck in that melee. I was watching cars going southbound on northbound roads, exiting on on-ramps… It was chaos.”
Price, who claims to not know the nature of the protest, or anything much about why he was stuck in traffic, does somehow know enough to make the claim that the protest was “close to being a riot.”
Back when he was a union organizer, before becoming a reverend, Duane Clinker was on many picket lines, in many tense situations. He’s seen picketers hit by cars. He’s seen guns drawn. “It’s very important,” said Clinker, “not just to not have a chilling effect on free speech, but to not have permission, in effect, on using a two thousand or three thousand pound object to hit somebody.”
The next speaker was speaking on behalf of a ninety year old woman who had waited a long time to protest the bill. The committee meeting ran over four hours, and this was one of the last bills called. Eventually the older woman had to leave.
“I think this bill is sick. I think it’s ugly. The whole reason people protest is to call attention to injustice… I really have a hard time, even imagining someone who would write this bill. It’s so inhumane. It’s unconscionable. Unconscionable that it’s all right to hit a protester. It’s really hard to imagine.”
For the last two speakers, Price was stewing, but not bubbling over. This wasn’t the case with the next speaker, Matthew Blair, of the National Lawyer’s Guild.
“We can’t just look at the text of the bill, even when the text of the bill is somewhat confusing and very short,” said Blair, “we have to look at the underlying motivations. When I read this I wondered why anyone would propose it now. We’ve had three or four big protests, very peaceful protests, no arrests, in the past month. It’s only been a month and a half. And so I thought, why would anyone submit this? This person must really love our President. This person must really not like refugees, not like women…”
Price exploded with an unintelligible utterance of some sort.
Chair Keable intervened. “Matthew, you’re off topic.”
Blair got back on the bill, but Chair Keable interrupted when Blair seemed to imply that it is constitutional to block highways. Blair cited Williams v Wallace, a case concerning John Lewis‘s freedom march.
“So conversely,” asked Price, “you think that your protest should Trump anybody’s right to travel. Is that what you’re saying? And I have one more question. You know you keep saying the expression ‘Black Lives Matter’ and our new president, Donald J Trump, who I do like, seeing how you brought it up, so, I’d like to ask you a question. So you work for Black Lives Matter?”
“You represent lawyers that do? Do you represent protesters?” asked Price.
“Hang on, hang on, hang on,” said Chair Keable, “Mr. Price, one question, one answer.”
“My question is,” said Price, “You brought up Black Lives Matter and you represent protesters, correct, as a lawyer?”
“That is correct,” said Blair.
“Who pays you?” asked Price.
“It is a volunteer organization, done pro bono,” responded Blair.
“It’s done pro bono,” said Price, “from where? Do you accept any money from George Soros?”
“No we don’t, sir,” said Blair.
Chair Keable then asked Blair to explain to Price what “pro bono” meant since Price is not a lawyer.
“Oh,” said Blair. “For free.”
“Okay,” said Price.
The bill was held for further study.
The next two speakers on the bill did an excellent job of exposing the legal and moral problems with Price’s bill.