Wisconsin weighs felony for actions against pipelines

September 27, 2019

MADISON A bipartisan proposal making it a felony to trespass or damage oil or gas pipelines in Wisconsin is moving through the state Legislature, despite complaints Thursday from opponents that it would violate free speech rights.

The bill heard by a state Assembly committee builds upon a 2015 state law that made it a felony to intentionally trespass or cause damage to the property of an energy provider. The latest proposal expands the definition of energy provider to include oil and gas pipelines, renewable fuel, and chemical and water infrastructure.

Those found guilty could face up to $10,000 in fines and six years in prison.

The Wisconsin measure has broad support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, organized labor unions, utilities, the state chamber of commerce and a variety of trade groups representing farmers, restaurants, the paper industry and others.

Supporters downplayed its intent, calling it the fix to an oversight from the earlier law.

Democratic state Rep. Jason Fields, of Milwaukee, is a co-sponsor of the bill and gave a passionate defense of the measure against critics who say it stifles free speech rights and will make it more difficult to combat climate change.

Fields, who is black, said to be effective protesters need to follow the non-violent model set by Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Ghandi and others.

"What I find appalling is somehow we've gotten to the point of making excuses for destruction of property," Fields testified. "I don't like the Ku Klux Klan but I don't have the right or option to go destroy their property. ... I don't care who you are. Destruction of property is a no-no."

Opponents said they weren't advocating for violence, but were concerned that the bill would unnecessarily escalate penalties for activities that are already crimes and possibly ensnare people who didn't realize they were protesting on private property.

"We already have too many people in prison in Wisconsin," said Patricia Hammel, an attorney from Madison who has represented protesters in court. "There's no need for more felonies in Wisconsin."

Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, the Republican chairman of the energy and utilities committee that held a hearing on the bill, tried to assure opponents that only intentionally illegal activity would be chargeable as a felony.

"If it's a lawful protest, no one has anything to worry about," he said.

The bill would have to pass the Senate and Assembly, both controlled by Republicans, and be signed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers before becoming law.

Nine other states have similar laws, according to Greenpeace, which opposes the legislation.

The laws aren't about preventing violence or sabotage, they're about intimidating anti-pipeline activists in reaction to protests against the Dakota Access pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline, said Connor Gibson with Greenpeace.

Earlier this month, a federal judge temporarily blocked enforcement of South Dakota laws that were designed to disruptive demonstrations against the Keystone XL pipeline but that opponents argued violated free speech rights.

The South Dakota law in question allowed charges to be brought against demonstrators who engage in "riot boosting," defined in part as encouraging violence during a riot. It was meant to head off Keystone XL protests like those mounted against the Dakota Access pipeline in that state that resulted in 761 arrests over a six-month span beginning in late 2016.

Unlike the South Dakota law, the Wisconsin proposal does not include provisions allowing for fines to be levied against organizations that support protesters.

Speaker asks governor to move congressional special election

MADISON, Wis. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on Friday "respectfully demanded" that Gov. Tony Evers reschedule a congressional special election because the primary would fall during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

Evers called the 7th District special election for Jan. 27 to fill the vacancy created by the resignation on Monday of Republican Sean Duffy. The primary is Dec. 30, which Vos noted in a letter to Evers is the final day of Hanukkah.

"I respectfully demand that you find a new date for the upcoming special election in Wisconsin," Vos wrote.

Evers' decision to hold the special election in January avoided potentially boosting GOP turnout in a state Supreme Court election in April, the same day as Wisconsin's presidential primary where Democratic turnout is likely to be high. Both the primary and general election for the special election Evers called would be on Mondays, moves that avoid having the primary on New Year's Eve.

Evers said he was calling it that early because he wanted to fill the seat as quickly as possible. He did not immediately respond to the Vos demand.

Democratic state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, who is Jewish, questioned why Vos was making the request given that the Assembly has been scheduled to meet on Jewish holidays in the past.

"Vos isn't Jewish and has, from my knowledge, never cared about Jewish issues until now," Brostoff said. "He's never even reached out to me once, even when he scheduled things on holidays previously."

The original legislative schedule, set by Republicans, had the Assembly scheduled to meet on Yom Kippur, which begins on the evening of Oct. 8. The Assembly voted unanimously to change the schedule so it would not meet on that day, but the Senate did not.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a liberal-leaning campaign finance watchdog group, agreed with Vos that the special election primary should not fall during Hannukah.

"Having a primary during the holidays just isn't cool," wrote Executive Director Matthew Rothschild, who is Jewish. He said holding the primary on a Monday during the holidays would be "anti-democratic" because it's likely to result in extremely low turnout.

Duffy's final day in Congress was Monday, the same day Evers announced the special election dates. He stepped down because his ninth baby, due next month, was diagnosed with a hole in its heart that will require his time and attention.


Associated Press