Environmental activists are speaking out against laws that slap harsher penalties onto anyone who trespasses on private property and destroys equipment, claiming such activity pertains to free speech.
State legislatures — particularly in states that depend on fossil fuel production — are increasingly responding to eco-terrorism. In Oklahoma, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill into law in 2017 that enacts bigger fines and prison time for people convicted of trespassing onto critical infrastructure facilities, which includes pipelines and other industrial sites. The Democratic governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, signed a similar bill that went into effect in August. Other states are considering related legislation.
None of the legislation in question has called for the right to protest on public land be taken away, however, many environmental groups are still voicing concern.
“All of the social progress we’ve made has depended, over the entire history of this nation, from the very beginning, on that ability to speak out against things that are wrong, things that are legal but should not be,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, according to Inside Climate News. “These bills put that fundamental element of our democracy in jeopardy.”
However, no such threat to democracy appears when examining the texts of the laws.
In Louisiana’s bill, for example, legislative language explicitly states that “Lawful assembly and peaceful and orderly petition, picketing, or demonstration for the redress of grievances or to express ideas or views” is not to be prevented. Oklahoma’s bill only pertains to individuals who willfully trespasses or destroy a critical infrastructure facility, but it does include any organization or person found to be conspiring with the crime.
Environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, have voiced concern over the “conspirator” section of Oklahoma’s law, suggesting it leaves open interpretation for who exactly has been involved with protest activity.
“The law is punitive and is designed to create friction and divisions among groups who normally wouldn’t have a second thought at working together,” Sierra Club’s Oklahoma director, Johnson Grimm-Bridgwater, explained.
However, the laws are meant to address environmental organizations that not only support illegal activities, but enable activists to break the law.
Numerous organizations have established a presence in Louisiana in opposition to the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, an 163-mile crude oil pipeline that runs across the southern portion of the state. Activists belonging to L’eau Est La Vie, Louisiana Bucket Brigade and other groups have been arrested for taking part in illegal demonstrations. Such actions have included: trespassing onto private property, chaining themselves to cement-filled barrels that have trapped construction workers, attaching themselves on to pipeline equipment, and outright destruction of property.
L’eau Est La Vie currently runs a donation page, with proceeds allowing activists to camp out in the woods for weeks — even months — at a time. Sources to The Daily Caller News Foundation say activists had raised as much as $60,000 in July. The financial support allows activists to sustain their camping lifestyle and continue their full-time protest of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline.