A New Oklahoma Law Protects Drivers Who Run Over Protesters

Oklahoma’s GOP governor signed into law one of many anti-protest bills that Republican state lawmakers across the U.S. have passed or are considering.

People attend a protest during nationwide unrest following the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., May 31, 2020. | Reuters
People attend a protest during nationwide unrest following the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., May 31, 2020. | Reuters

If someone in Oklahoma “unintentionally” injures or kills protesters with a motor vehicle, they might be exempt from civil or criminal liability, according to a bill Gov. Kevin Stitt (R-OK) signed into law on Wednesday. People in the state have been protesting the legislation, which is one of many GOP-backed anti-protest measures proposed in 2021.

HB 1674 says that a driver who harms protesters with their vehicle will be shielded from liability as long as they did so while exercising “due care” and because they felt fleeing would protect them from “serious injury or death,” according to the bill’s text. 

The law recalls an incident in Tulsa, Oklahoma during May 2020 where a truck driver drove through a crowd of anti-racism demonstrators in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The Tulsa County DA did not pursue charges against the driver, who injured three people. The driver was with his family at the time and reportedly said they feared for their safety. 

Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who killed Floyd in May, was found guilty on two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter on April 20. 

Oklahoma defines a "riot" as any group of three or more people who use or threaten force or violence. In addition to providing immunity for drivers who might injure or kill protesters, HB 1674 penalizes people engaging in a "riot" that blocks public streets or highways. The legislation defines obstruction as “impeding, hindering, or restraining” vehicle traffic. Anyone engaging in this activity can be found guilty of a misdemeanor, imprisoned for up to a year, and forced to pay a $5,000 fine. 

People gathered at the Oklahoma Capitol on April 21 to protest against HB 1674 and several other pieces of legislation in the state, including another anti-protest bill, anti-abortion bills, and a bill that would ban trans student athletes from competing on sports teams as their gender. The protesters disrupted House proceedings at the State Capitol before being kicked out, video shows

The Collegiate Freedom and Justice Coalition is a nonprofit, civic organization that organized Wednesday’s protest along with another group Whites Against Racism. “You cannot just run somebody over and it be okay because your justification is you felt you were threatened,” Adriana Laws, the founder and president of the Collegiate Freedom and Justice Coalition, said to KFOR . “I feel threatened everyday as a Back woman in society.”

In response to criticism, over HB 1674, Gov. Stitt said in a statement cited by multiple outlets that he is “committed” to upholding the First Amendment in Oklahoma and that by signing the legislation, “We are sending a message today to Oklahoma that rioters who threaten law abiding citizens’ safety will not be tolerated.”

The Iowa state Senate approved a similar bill in March that would provide, in some cases, immunity for drivers who injure protesters. Republican lawmakers representing 34 different states have put forth more than 80 anti-protest bills since the start of 2021, Elly Page, a senior legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, told The New York Times.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a measure into law in April that expands the definition of “riot” to include any group of three or more people whose actions present “imminent danger” or result in property damage or personal injury, among other things.

“Notably, the new definition does not require that the individuals’ conduct be disorderly or violent, or that they commit any actual damage or injury,” the ICNL writes of the Florida bill.

You can keep up to date with anti-protest legislation with ICNL’s tracker.