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Infrastructure protest bill advances in Wyoming Legislature

February 1, 2019

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A legislative committee on Friday advanced a bill that would impose tougher penalties against protesters who intentionally disrupt the operation of refineries, power plants, pipelines, mines and other such facilities in Wyoming and subject groups behind any such acts to fines of up $100,000.

House Bill 10 was recommended by the House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee on a 5-4 vote. It now goes to the full House for more debate.

Opponents of the proposal say it would infringe on the rights of protesters and landowners, and current laws address any crimes against facilities. Supporters say no rights would be threatened, and current laws were not adequate in giving authorities the ability to prosecute people who impede the operations of what the bill calls “critical infrastructure.”

The effort to protect what are termed “critical infrastructure” in the legislation rose from the violent protests against the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota in 2016 and 2017 and vandalism of other equipment and facilities in Wyoming and elsewhere

A similar measure passed the Legislature last year. But it was vetoed by former Gov. Matt Mead, who didn’t like how the measure was crafted.

Gov. Mark Gordon, who replaced Mead this year, will review the new bill closely if it passes the Legislature, said Rachel Girt, Gordon’s spokeswoman.

Under the proposed bill, a person who “intentionally or knowingly impedes the operations of a critical infrastructure facility” or trespasses on such a facility can face jail time and fines.

Impeding the operation of a facility includes damaging the facility, blocking construction of a facility and tampering with the facility’s equipment, according to the proposal.

In addition, an organization that “acted with the intent that the crime of impeding critical infrastructure be completed” could be fined up to $100,000.

The measure states that nothing in the proposed law “shall be construed to apply to public demonstrations or other expressions of free speech or free association to the extent that such activity is protected.”

The committee recommended amendments that would add broadband infrastructure and public roads to the list of things that shouldn’t be impeded.

Bill sponsor Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, said the law was needed because of the new tactics that protesters have been using to disrupt operations of facilities that they oppose.

Larsen noted that the law will not affect any protesters not hindering a facility’s operations.

In addition, property owners “trying to work out a right-away issue has nothing to do with impeding or trespassing on critical infrastructure,” he said.

Stephanie Kessler of the Wyoming Outdoor Council testified against the proposal Friday, saying it was designed to chill public dissent and was too broad and unnecessary.

After the committee’s action, Kessler noted that civil disobedience was employed in the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements in the past.

“They did that in order to represent their freedom of speech, and they knew full well that they were going to get charged for breaking the law,” Kessler said.

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