Pipeline protest bill passes committee unanimously

By: - October 3, 2019 10:52 am

Photo by Intermountain Region US Forest Service, licensed under CC PDM 1.0

With no dissent and no protest from either legislators or onlookers, a controversial bill ratcheting up penalties for trespassing on energy sites including pipeline projects passed out of an Assembly committee Wednesday.

The Energy and Utilities Committee approved AB 426 in less than 10 minutes on a 14-0 vote. Both the Assembly bill and its state Senate companion, SB 386, are sponsored by Republicans and Democrats.

Wednesday’s short session was a sharp contrast to the nearly 2-hour public hearing on the measure Sept. 26.

There, supporters from the petroleum industry and labor unions representing construction workers insisted it was needed to ensure worker safety from violent trespassers on worksites for controversial projects— mainly oil and gas transport pipelines. 

The legislation’s critics castigated it as crushing free-speech rights at the behest of powerful corporations. Several suggested that in escalating the penalties for violators to encompass fines of up to $10,000 and prison terms for up to six years, the bill would deter people from exercising their right to dissent peacefully for fear of being arrested and charged.

Before joining in the committee vote for the bill, the panel’s ranking Democrat, state Rep. Beth Meyers (D-Bayfield), took note of the critics’ assertions “that this bill would curb their First Amendment right to protest, that this bill would embolden corporate power” but stressed a clause stating the bill would not apply to “an exercise of a person’s right of free speech or assembly that is otherwise lawful.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.