Protest Intimidation Bills Moving Through the Minnesota Legislature

Bills aimed at scaring off protests against the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands crude oil pipeline are moving through both the Minnesota House and Senate. They would limit free speech and hold peaceful protesters accountable for the actions of others.

The bills, HF 3693 and SF 3463, apply to “critical infrastructure,” things like airports and crude oil pipelines. The bills create new criminal and civil penalties on Minnesotans exercising their constitutional rights to protest controversial projects such as the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline. The bills are a clear attempt to intimidate and silence pipeline opposition.

All that you really need to know about the bills is they are coming from boilerplate legislation proposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group which gets significant financial backing from the Koch Brothers and large energy corporations, according to PR Watch. (See ALEC’s website for more on its “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act.”)

The bills’ key legal term is “vicarious liability.” It means if there is a protest on the pipeline company’s property and there is property damage, the company could sue not only the individuals involved in the direct action (current law), but anyone — or any organization — who trained, aided or supported them.

The bill is vague and opens the possibility for multinational corporations like Enbridge to engage in harassment lawsuits against Honor the Earth, the Sierra Club, faith communities supporting civil disobedience and others who oppose the project.  The suits wouldn’t have to win, they would simply make people and organizations afraid to engage in this country’s age-old tradition of protest because of the threat of severe fines and imprisonment.

This bill would be particularly burdensome on Native American nations and Native-led organizations who have the most at stake.  Their communities will be on the front lines of the protest trying to protect their treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather on the lands along the pipeline’s proposed route. Their communities have the least resources to deal with law suits.

On Wednesday, HF 3693 passed out of the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee on a party-line vote and now goes to the House floor. SF 3463 passed out of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee on a party line vote and now goes to the Senate floor.

The only thing standing in the way of “vicarious liability” becoming law is Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto pen. There’s no time like the present. Pick up the phone and give Dayton a call: 651-201-3400. Ask him to get ready to veto HF 3693 or SF3463.

For anyone who has done citizen lobbying, you know it is a painful process, sitting and waiting. The outcome is typically known in advance. Testimony rarely persuades a legislator to change a vote, particularly on contentious issues like this. Yet it is a ritual that we do. We believe in the process, so we show up and say our piece.

That said, Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee hearing was unusually painful.  The agenda had nine bills. SF 3463 had the most people who wanted to testify, and was probably the most controversial. Committee Chair Sen. Warren Limmer put the bill at the end of the agenda.

(As a former reporter, I have watched lots of legislative hearings. There are times when the chair will recognize that a  lot of people have come to testify on a particular bill and move it to the front of the agenda. That didn’t happen.)

The committee process was a metaphor for the bill itself. The committee process suppressed criticism of the bill. The bill suppresses criticism of the pipeline.

The Senate committee hearing was scheduled for 1-3 p.m. By 3 p.m., the committee only got through about half of its business. It recessed and reconvened at 7 p.m. SF 3463 didn’t come up for debate until 9 p.m., after four hours of committee time. To make matters worse, witnesses were asked to limit their testimony to two minutes.

Full disclosure: We had been told in advance that our time would be limited to two minutes. However, I don’t recall witnesses testifying on other bills being told to limit their testimony to two minutes. It seemed like a slap in the face after such a long wait.

One of those testifying was St. Paul Harding High School student Rose Whipple. Whipple (Isanti Dakota and Ho-Chunk) spent a year fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline by organizing and attending actions. She also is one of 13 Youth Climate Intervenors. This is a group of young people who sought and was granted “intervenor status” before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on the Enbridge Line 3 case. These youth were recognized to participate because of their youth — they will bear the most impact from the pipeline’s climate change contributions.

Two minutes for Whipple. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce — a bill supporter — had no limits put on its time and got to speak in favor of the bill and comment on proposed amendments.

Tara Housska, J.D., from Honor the Earth, testified at both the House and Senate committee hearings. She submitted written testimony on HF 3693, saying it was “misguided and dangerous. … This is an assault on our democracy by the lobbyists of a foreign pipeline company,” she said.

John Gordon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, testified at both the House and Senate hearings, and said the bills were “unnecessary, unwise, and unconstitutional.” There already were laws on the books for criminal trespass, he said. He had heard no complaints from law enforcement that they didn’t have the tools they needed for these cases.

One thought on “Protest Intimidation Bills Moving Through the Minnesota Legislature

  1. […] The stakes are being raised at the state legislature as an industry-backed bill is trying to create something called “vicarious liability.” It would allow Enbridge to sue not only individuals responsible for damages during a trespass protest, but it would allow Enbridge to sue any organizations that aided the protestors. (See earlier blog: Protest Intimidation Bills Moving Through the Minnesota Legislature.) […]

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