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.
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.”