ND bill aimed at protests would limit penalties for drivers who hit road-blocking pedestrians
BISMARCK -- One of a pair of bills North Dakota lawmakers have drafted in response to the ongoing protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline would help prevent lawsuits and criminal charges against pedestrians who are blocking traffic on a publi...
BISMARCK -- One of a pair of bills North Dakota lawmakers have drafted in response to the ongoing protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline would help prevent lawsuits and criminal charges against pedestrians who are blocking traffic on a public road.
House Bill 1203, whose prime sponsor is Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, would eliminate a driver’s liability for damages if he or she negligently injures or kills someone who is “obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway.” Injuring or killing a road-obstructing pedestrian would also be free from criminal penalty if the driver struck the person unintentionally.
Kempenich said the bill was prompted by experiences his mother-in-law had while driving south of Mandan, where protesters have massed in opposition to the $3.8 billion crude oil pipeline, sometimes closing roads or causing delays or other problems for passing motorists.
Highways shouldn’t be used as staging areas for protests, Kempenich said. “They’re intentionally putting themselves in danger,” he said, adding that accidents could result.
Blocking roads or highways has also been a tactic adopted on occasion by protesters in other movements, such as Black Lives Matter.
A spokeswoman for the pipeline protests said she is concerned the bill, if passed, would give careless drivers a free pass to kill or maim people who are exercising their free speech rights.
“It is basically giving permission for vehicular homicide, and that is wrong,” said Joye Braun, an organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network. “Nobody has the right to take the life of another person.”
The network is an activist group that opposes the pipeline, which would carry Bakken crude oil across the Missouri River just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Protesters say the pipeline’s path crosses sacred land and could endanger the tribe’s source of drinking water.
Braun said she once was struck by a woman who objected to her video-recording a protest outside a fast-food restaurant in Mandan, and she worries the bill would embolden people to harm pipeline protesters.
“I believe there is a small element who may use this as an excuse to attack people,” Braun said.
The proposal has attracted some national attention. Robert Reich, a former U.S. labor secretary and liberal commentator, has criticized the bill.
“The right to free speech and expression can be as endangered by ignorant legislators as by cunning tyrants,” Reich wrote in a piece that circulated on Facebook. ”We must be vigilant.”
House Bill 1203 was introduced last week and is set for a committee hearing Jan. 20. It’s at least the second bill aimed at the pipeline protests introduced in the legislative session, North Dakota’s first since the protests erupted late last summer.
House Bill 1304, supported by House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, would prohibit wearing masks with the “intent to conceal that individual's identity.” The prohibition against masks includes someone who is walking along a street or highway or is “holding any meeting or demonstration” on private property without the landowner’s permission.
The bill also allows exceptions, including “wearing a traditional holiday costume in season,” participating in a sporting activity, theatrical production or parade. It also grants an exception for wearing a mask or covering based on religious beliefs.
“My concern is that it’s potentially unconstitutional,” Braun said. “We’re still in America. I keep saying that -- we’re still in America.”
Braun wondered if wearing a scarf worn for protection against the cold would be prohibited. The bill allows an exception for a mask or hood worn for protection against the elements.
“These are very scary laws that are trying to be passed,” Braun said. “Kneejerk legislation is just not good legislation.”
The Bismarck Tribune contributed to this article.