Bill to prohibit LGBTQ “panic defense” tabled in Arkansas Senate committee

Legal expertise sought; two other bills pass Judiciary Committee

By: - January 30, 2023 8:00 pm
A candle burns outside an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in November 2022.

A candle burns at a makeshift memorial to shooting victims outside Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in November 2022. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A bill expanding Arkansas school employees’ right to defend themselves in physical altercations passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, while another bill aimed at protecting LGBTQ Arkansans from violence was tabled.

Senate Minority Whip Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) said her background as a schoolteacher informed her introduction of both bills.

Chesterfield introduced Senate Bill 60 during the first week of the legislative session but waited to bring it before the committee until she knew there would be public testimony, she said.

Senate Bill 60 would outlaw the use of “panic” regarding a victim’s sex, gender or sexual orientation as justification for violence against them. The “panic defense” has been banned in 13 states as of 2022.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock)
Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock)

Committee chair Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) said he wasn’t certain the word “panic” was appropriate to describe the issue at hand. Chesterfield disagreed and mentioned some of her former students.

“I knew that some of them were gay and that they got beaten up,” she said. “One young man who was trans [got] beaten up until they found out he could beat them up, and they cut out a lot of that, but it’s not okay.”

The word “panic” appears in the title but not the text of the proposed law.

“It is not a defense to a prosecution for a crime of violence that the defendant’s conduct resulted from the discovery, knowledge, or disclosure of the victim’s sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, or sex assigned at birth,” the bill states.

The issue is personal for the O’Connell family of Little Rock, said Marie Mainard O’Connell, a Presbyterian pastor who has three children, one of whom is transgender. 

In November 2022, a gunman killed five people and injured 17 more at a gay nightclub in Colorado. The gunman’s 305 criminal charges include 48 hate crime counts.

O’Connell said while testifying for the bill that she and her family learned about the shooting while attending an event that memorialized the more than 30 transgender Americans who were killed in 2022 for their gender identities. O’Connell’s youngest child, age 7, came to understand the meaning of a hate crime at that moment.

“He snuggled in real close and he looked me in the eye, and then he said loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Mom, is my sibling going to be murdered for being trans?’” O’Connell said. “As a parent, I didn’t know what to say.”

Sen. Terry Rice (R-Waldron) asked if the bill would give “special rights” to any group of people.

O’Connell responded that “it takes very little imagination” to think of situations in which someone is surprised to learn that another person is transgender and lashes out as a result.

“I don’t think we should be giving criminals an easy out,” O’Connell said. “…The assertion, ‘Yes, I did this, I am guilty, but I shouldn’t be held accountable because I have feelings,’ is not something that Arkansas wants to stand for.”

Rice said he agreed that criminals should not get a free pass but still had reservations about “potential other ramifications” of the bill.

Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff)

He made a motion to table the bill until “judicial experts” could offer further testimony. The motion passed in a voice vote with some audible dissenters.

Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff), the committee’s vice chair, voted against the motion and said the bill had been on the committee’s publicly available agenda long enough to draw potential witnesses, including “judicial experts.”

“If they were concerned and had some position opposite of what the proposed legislation is, they would have been here,” Flowers said.

Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) said he supported the bill as it was and would have preferred for Rice’s motion to include a deadline or timeline for the proposed testimony.

The committee would have to pass a motion to return the bill to the agenda in order to revisit it.

In an interview after the meeting, Rice said he could not give examples of any “potential other ramifications” of Senate Bill 60 because he does not have a legal or law enforcement background.

“I’d hate to just vote no, because I might not be a no once I can find out [more information] and get my mind around it,” Rice said.

Approved legislation

Senate Bill 59 passed the committee with no audible votes against it.

It would clarify existing law to allow teachers, bus drivers and other school personnel to use “reasonable and appropriate physical force” as self-defense if a “minor or incompetent person” attacks them. Existing state law specifies that teachers are allowed to defend themselves but does not include other school employees.

“I was a classroom teacher [and] I was trained somewhat in discipline, but we’re basically thrown into the classroom with very little professional development about what our rights are and what we can do in order to maintain order, especially if we are attacked,” Chesterfield said.

Flowers said she was concerned about whether school employees besides teachers are trained to discipline children properly, including children with disabilities, and know students’ rights as well as their own.

Chesterfield said she has heard of two incidents this year in which students attacked school employees who feared fighting back in case they could lose their jobs.

“I want our kids to be protected just as you do, but at the same time, I want our workers to stay in environments that are safe for them and would give them the right to defend themselves,” Chesterfield said.

​​Jerry Cox, founder and president of the conservative Family Council, spoke in favor of Senate Bill 59. He called it a “good, common-sense bill that protects everybody” based on his past experience as both a teacher and a school bus driver.

There were no witnesses against the bill.

The committee also approved a bill that would prohibit registered sex offenders from buying, owning or using a drone.

House Bill 1125 passed the House last week and would prevent people with a history of predatory behavior from photographing or filming people from the air without their consent in places where privacy is expected, said Rep. Brian Evans (R-Cabot), the bill’s sponsor.

Tucker said this type of voyeuristic behavior should be illegal for everyone, not just for sex offenders. He abstained from voting on the bill, which passed 5-1 with Flowers as the only no vote.

Evans said the bill particularly aims to protect children and women from invasions of privacy.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.