Lawsuits filed in three states are the result of environmental groups fighting back against biased anti-protest laws aimed as squashing fossil fuel industry opponents.
As reported by The Intercept, current lawsuits in Louisiana and South Dakota, as well as a third promised lawsuit in Texas, are just the beginning of the pushback against what has become a nationwide, industry-led effort to suppress opposition to the fossil fuel industry.
The industry’s efforts started last May in Oklahoma when a new law was signed into law which made it a felony to trespass on property considered “critical infrastructure” (the definition of which includes oil and gas pipelines) and that any organization or individual found in violation of the law could face fines of up to $1 million.
Then in December of last year the right-wing lobbyist group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), introduced a similar bill as “model legislation” that they want lawmakers to adopt across the nation.
In Louisiana, new legislation was introduced amidst the construction of the controversial Bayou Bridge oil pipeline. Arrests began among pipeline protestors just a week after the law went into effect and more than a dozen pipeline opponents have been charged since.
One of those individuals that were arrested and charged is Anne White Hat. White Hat was arrested and charged with two felonies under the new law after she protested on contested land that the parent company for Bayou Bridge Pipeline had begun construction on before legally being granted permission. The land is co-owned by more than 100 landowners, some of who oppose BBP’s actions and gave express permission for pipeline protestors to access their land. It is unclear whether or not the charges will stick, but regardless White Hat says that being arrested and charges “does give me pause to think.”
The law is “so vague, overly broad, and sweeping in scope that people in the state cannot be sure of where in the vicinity of Louisiana’s vast 125,000-mile network of pipelines they can legally be present, who decides where they can be present, or what conduct is prohibited,” says the lawsuit in Louisiana.
A pair of laws passed in South Dakota, in response to the massive protests against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, create civil penalties for “riot boosting,” which apply to anyone who “directs, advises, encourages, or solicits other persons participating in the riot,” as well as creates a new fund for law enforcement and emergency response to pay the costs of policing pipeline protests. The first law penalizes the protestors and the second law uses the penalty money to support more law enforcement to squash the protests.
The law “incentivizes the State to sue protesters and those who encourage and advise them in order to compensate for security and other costs incurred by the State and third parties during a protest,” says the lawsuit filed by the ACLU in South Dakota.
This week Texas became the sixth state to enact similar legislation. Authors of the bill have attended ALEC conferences in recent years and big corporations in the fossil fuel industry such as Texas Oil and Gas Association, the Texas Pipeline Association, Enbridge, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell have signed on as official supporters, states the Texas Observer.
In Louisiana and South Dakota, a total of 19 anti-pipeline activists and organizations have signed on in plaintiffs in the two lawsuits. They argue that the states’ anti-protest laws are “unconstitutionally vague and violate the First Amendment.”
These recent anti-protest laws could have serious First Amendment implications not just for protestors but for journalists covering pipeline protests. Under the new laws, journalists could face felony charges if their presence is “interpreted to interfere with operations.”
“It’s hard to convince or even ask people with children to organize against pipelines if a mother will risk a felony,” said Jennifer Falcon, a spokesperson for Texas’s Society of Native Nations, told The Intercept.
“The response of the government to protest ought to be engaging on the issue, listening to the concerns of the people that are speaking out, and trying to respect and work with them,” says ACLU lawyer Vera Eidelman, “not stifle First Amendment rights.”