NASHVILLE — Senate Democrats were united Tuesday in their opposition to a bill that would provide legal immunity to some drivers who hit protestors blocking roadways.
The initial version of Senate Bill 843 would have also made it a felony for protestors to block roadways or sidewalks — a penalty that strips away voting rights in Tennessee.
After a spirited debate and public testimony that often invoked the name of the late Sen. Thelma Harper, the Judiciary Committee delayed action on the measure until 2022. Sen. Harper, who died last week, will be memorialized Wednesday as the first Black woman to lie in the Tennessee Capitol.
At one point, Sen. Sara Kyle (D-Memphis) held up an image of Harper taken in 1986. In the photo, Harper and her neighbors were standing at a worksite in front of a truck in protest of damage being done to their community.
“I have a picture of Sen. Harper here standing in front of a dump truck and I think that it is odd that we would be honoring her today — had she been under this law, we may not have had all the good work that she brought forward after this incident,” Sen. Kyle said. “My view is that we should be protecting our Constitution’s First Amendment, which includes freedom of speech, press or the right to peacefully assemble.”
Sen. Katrina Robinson (D-Memphis) told members of the committee the legislation targeting protestors would have a chilling effect on free speech — especially with young people.
“We have young people who are waking up everyday and becoming more involved. I think about my daughter who got involved in a protest in Memphis on a bridge because she woke up and decided that she wanted to be more active in her community and to be an advocate for young people like herself,” Sen. Robinson said, addressing the bill sponsor. “Your granddaughter may wake up one day and say ‘hey, I want to be more involved, this is not right’ and she would be subjected to this same bill.
“At a time when we need to work together to mend the divisiveness in our country and in our state, this bill was a step in the wrong direction and the wrong message to send.”