Article published by: FW Broschart, Buckrail.

Wyoming State Senate moves to criminalize your right to protest

This Anonymous protest could be a criminal act if Wyoming legislators get their way. (Sean P. Anderson via Flickr)

The Wyoming State Senate last week voted in favor of a bill some say could criminalize protests like the 2016 Standing Rock efforts in North Dakota.

The bill, Senate File 74 or the “Crimes against critical infrastructure” bill, would make it a felony to damage or otherwise tamper with infrastructure such as pipelines, but would also make it a felony if a person, “impedes or inhibits the operations of a critical infrastructure facility.” The bill would levy a penalty of 10 years in prison, a fine of $100,000 or both.

An organization that “aids, abets, solicits, encourages, hires, conspires, commands or procures a person to commit the crime of impeding critical infrastructure,” would be fined up to $1,000,000.

The bill does not offer a definition of “impeding or inhibiting the operations” of an infrastructure facility, and that has led to concerns from some civil rights and environmental advocates that the bill might make it too easy for government agencies to arrest people who exercise their right to protest against controversial infrastructure projects.

The bill as filed in the Wyoming Senate is identical to other laws proposed by two other states: Ohio and Iowa. The bills are based off two bills in the state of Oklahoma, HB 1123 and HB 2128. Those laws, which are now law in the Sooner State, hit violators who “willfully damage, destroy, vandalize, deface, or tamper with equipment in a critical infrastructure facility,” with 10 years in prison and/or a $100,000 fine.

Similar to the bills in Wyoming, Ohio and Iowa, the Oklahoma law also makes it a crime for an organization to encourage protestors or otherwise aid them. The Oklahoma laws were passed in 2017.

The bills proposed by Wyoming, Iowa and Ohio are essentially boilerplate legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded group that advocates for “limited government, free markets and federalism.”

ALEC, supported by corporate donations, brings together big business interests and state and federal lawmakers to write and vote on “model legislation” intended to advance the interests of ALEC supporters. Once model legislation is written, members of the organization can introduce the laws into their legislative bodies.

In many cases, the legislation from one state to another is identical, with only details specific to the individual state added in. In one incident, a Florida lawmaker drew ire from some when he introduced ALEC legislation to that state’s legislature without removing ALEC’s mission statement from the bill.

In the past, Alec has taken a keen interest in energy production, supporting hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as well as pipeline projects like Keystone XL, and diluting environmental protections and renewable energy standards. The group has also gone after rules and regulations aimed at combatting climate change. It has even gotten involved in controversial gun issues, including so-called “stand your ground” legislation. Florida’s stand your ground law, which gained nationwide notice during the Trayvon Martin incident in 2012, began its life as ALEC model legislation.

The legislation taken up by the Wyoming Senate was introduced by Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta). When introducing the legislation, Christensen said the bill was not intended to tamp down on legal protests, but instead was aimed at “ecoterrorism,” not constitutionally-protected free speech.

Another of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower), told WyoFile the bill would not have affected protestors at Standing Rock in Nebraska, since those people were protesting a proposed pipeline, not an existing piece of critical infrastructure as the proposed Wyoming law specifies. Driskill did concede that there have been no attacks on critical infrastructure in the State of Wyoming, but said that infrastructure in the state was vulnerable, and that existing trespassing laws are not enough to deter sabotage to infrastructure.

Despite Christensen and Driskill’s assurances that the bill is not aimed at constitutionally-protected free speech like the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, some are concerned the bill could chill free speech. Of particular concern is the part of the bill that imposes tremendous monetary fines on an organization that, “aids, abets, solicits, encourages, hires, conspires, commands or procures a person to commit the crime of impeding critical infrastructure.”

Several organizations have noted their concerns including the ALCU of Wyoming and the Sierra Club. Both organizations released statements urging the public to resist the adoption of the bill.

The proposed law, the ACLU said in its email, was “plainly an attempt to chill free speech and protesting in Wyoming in response to grassroots actions seeking to advocate for environmental causes and pipeline protests.” The ACLU also added that critical infrastructure is already protected under federal law.

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