The assault on environmental protest

Efforts vary from state to state, but they have one thing in common: they would punish public participation and mischaracterize advocacy protected by the First Amendment.   

The assault on environmental protest

© Getty

More than 50 state bills that would criminalize protest, deter political participation, and curtail freedom of association have been introduced across the country in the past two years. These bills are a direct reaction from politicians and corporations to the tactics of some of the most effective protesters in recent history, including Black Lives Matter and the water protectors challenging construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.

If they succeed, these legislative moves will suppress dissent and undercut marginalized groups voicing concerns that disrupt current power dynamics.

Efforts vary from state to state, but they have one thing in common: they would punish public participation and mischaracterize advocacy protected by the First Amendment.

For example, bills introduced in Washington and North Carolina would have defined peaceful demonstrations as “economic terrorism.” In Iowa, legislators are currently considering bills that would create the crime of “critical infrastructure sabotage.” Labels like “terrorists” and “saboteurs” have long been misused to sideline already oppressed groups and to vilify their attempts to speak out.

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 Other bills are written so broadly that they could impose criminal penalties and devastating  fines simply for offering food or housing to protestors. For instance, a bill currently being considered in Wyoming would impose a $1 million penalty on any person or organization that “encourages” certain forms of environmental protest. Legislation introduced in Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, and North Dakota would have allowed drivers to hit protesters with carswithout criminal repercussions.

Corporations like Energy Transfer Partners — the company behind the Dakota Access pipeline — and industry groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council are encouraging these bills. Not surprisingly, the efforts have gotten the most traction in states key to oil and gas interests.

Proponents of these bills are using “protection” of critical infrastructure as a guise for these First Amendment attacks. That framing completely ignores the many laws already on the books addressing those concerns, from trespass to property damage. Indeed, protesters are already being arrested under those laws across the country.

Legislation is not the only tool the oil and gas industry is deploying in its effort to silence opposition. Six months ago, Energy Transfer Partners filed a $900 million dollar lawsuit against several environmental groups, including Greenpeace, alleging that a “criminal enterprise” was put in place to stop the pipeline project.

Similarly, 84 members of Congress sent a bipartisan letter to the Department of Justice earlier this fall, asking officials to prosecute pipeline activists as “terrorists” — a troubling policy that resembles the one being lobbied for at a federal level by the American Petroleum Institute.

Corporations are already abusing existing laws to silence dissent and shut the public out of decision-making. Now, lawmakers are trying to give corporate interests even more tools to punish people for speaking up for their families and communities. That is an attack on democracy — one our organizations will continue to resist. 

Maggie Ellinger-Locke is counsel at Greenpeace USA.

Vera Eidelman is the William J. Brennan Fellow at ACLU.

THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY CONTRIBUTORS ARE THEIR OWN AND NOT THE VIEW OF THE HILL

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Below are the bills pending for Minnesota. For your state, click on this link:  50 state bills

Minnesota

HF 1066/SF 918: Heightened penalties for protesters who block traffic

Would heighten penalties for any individual who “interferes with, obstructs, or renders dangerous for passage” any public highway or any right-of-way within airport property. According to the bill, such interference or obstruction is classified as a public nuisance and a gross misdemeanor, punishable by a $3,000 fine and one year of jail time. (See full text of bill here)

Status: pending

Introduced 9 Feb 2017.

Issue(s): traffic interference

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Minnesota

HF 322/SF 679: Charging protesters for the cost of responding to a protest

Would allow the state to sue protesters and charge them for the costs of policing a public assembly. The bill gives state agencies, cities, and counties the authority to bring civil lawsuits against people convicted of unlawful assembly or public nuisance. The lawsuits could seek the full cost of responding to the unlawful assembly, including officer time, law enforcement helicopters, and administrative expenses. (See full text of bill here)

Status: pending

Introduced 2 Feb 2017.

Issue(s): security costs

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Minnesota

HF 390/SF 676: Heightened penalties for protesters who block traffic

Would increase penalties for protestors who intentionally obstruct highways or public roadway access to airports. Under the bill, the offense would be a gross misdemeanor rather than a misdemeanor, punishable by a $3,000 fine and one year in jail. Minnesota legislators have pledged to revisit the bill, sponsored by State Representative Nick Zerwas, early in the 2018 session. (See full text of bill here)

Status: pending

Introduced 23 Jan 2017.

Issue(s): traffic interference

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Minnesota

HF 896/SF 803: Heightened penalties for protesters who block traffic

Would have increased penalties for protestors who intentionally obstruct highway or public roadway access to airports. Under the bill, such obstruction is classified as a gross misdemeanor rather than a misdemeanor. The bill, an omnibus public safety measure, incorporates language from two previously proposed bills aimed at heightening penalties on protesters. It would have allowed prosecutors to seek a $3,000 fine and one year of jail time for protesters intentionally blocking or interfering with traffic on a highway or public roadway within the boundaries of airport property. (See full text of bill here)

Status: defeated / expired

Introduced 9 Feb 2017; Vetoed by Governor Dayton 15 May 2017

Issue(s): traffic interference


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