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