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Groups react to ‘protest bill’ being made law

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Rep. Scott Biggs (R-Chickasha).
Fertile Ground Compost Service

OKLAHOMA CITY – On Monday, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill into law that makes it illegal for a person to trespass on property “containing critical infrastructure without permission,” a move that some organizations say targets protesters and squashes the right for peaceful assembly.

House Bill 1123 – which focuses specifically on critical infrastructure facilities like power substations, petroleum refineries, chemical manufacturing plants and dams, to name a few – includes harsh penalties for anyone trespassing or damaging facilities. The bill also includes pipelines, storage facilities, natural gas facilities and other infrastructures.

The bill’s author, Rep. Scott Biggs (R-Chickasha) said earlier this year that the bill would discourage “damaging” protests like the ones at Standing Rock, but was not designed to prevent peaceful protests.

However, many organizations feel the bill specifically targets protesters who may assemble at pipeline projects or oil and natural gas and drilling operations.

HB 1123 states that any person who willfully trespasses or enters property containing a critical infrastructure facility without permission would be considered, upon conviction, guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not less than $1,000, by imprisonment in the county jail six months or both.

If courts determine that the intent of those trespassing is to damage equipment or impede the operations of the facility, they will be punished by a fine of no less than $10,000, imprisonment at the Department of Corrections for a year or both.

The bill went into effect immediately.

Oklahoma currently has laws in place making trespassing or destruction of property illegal. However, another aspect of the bill would make organizations who protest liable for $1 million.

If an organization is found to be a conspirator with anyone trespassing or damaging and impeding critical infrastructure, that organization would be fined 10 times the amount of the individual fines. In the case of the felony tampering charge, an organization would face a $1 million fine.

Discouraging protests

Opponents of the bill say they have serious concerns about the ramifications of the legislation. Oklahoma attorney Doug Parr, an outspoken opponent of the bill, said HB 1123 was nothing but a veiled attempt to keep people from protesting oil pipelines and other oil and gas structures.

“This bill is like a number of other bills being introduced around the United States that are specifically designed to intimidate individuals and environmental organizations from engaging in any kind of organized political protest at the location of facilities that cause or may cause environmental damage, especially protests at fossil fuel facilities,” Parr said in February.

He said he was disappointed by the governor’s decision to make the bill law.

“This is a bill that was specifically and carefully written to provide a tool to intimidate and punish people engaged in non-violent and non-destructive protests of fossil fuel extraction activity,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. I think most people understand the significance of the number of legislators and politicians in Oklahoma who receive contributions from people associated with the fuel industry.”
In February, members of the Sierra Club, the American Civil Liberties Union, Native American tribes and more gathered to express dismay and outrage at the bill, saying that the legislation wasn’t just un-American, but a blatant intimidation and scare tactic by big corporations and legislators to squash freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

In the press conference, Johnson Bridgwater, executive director of the Oklahoma Sierra Club, said federal restrictions were already on the books to protect critical infrastructure like pipelines, dams and power plants.

“The very obvious and true purpose of these bills is a conservative reaction to the successful protest at the Dakota Access Pipeline,” he said. “Simply by being arrested, you are subject to legalities. Not proven guilty, but getting arrested. Legislative attempts to curb protests are trying to equate protest to terrorism. It’s undemocratic and un-American.”

House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) said the bill wasn’t aimed to stifle free speech.

“We are not trying to shut down anybody’s right of free speech, but it is very much about personal property and damage to personal property,” he said.

Protest crackdown

In at least 18 states, Republican lawmakers introduced similar legislation designed to discourage mass protests. Bills range from banning the use of masks, increasing punishments for blocking highways, seizing assets of those in violent protests and forgiving drivers who hit protesters with their cars.

The legislation would affect groups like the coalition of Native American groups and environmental organizations that spoke out against a proposed pipeline in Oklahoma during a press conference in January at the Oklahoma State Capitol.

Bold Oklahoma, the Sierra Club, American Indian Movement, Stop the All Plains Pipeline and Arkansas Rising said its members will protest a planned pipeline project that runs through eastern Oklahoma to Tennessee.

The Oklahoma Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also expressed dismay at the bill’s passage.

“It is incredibly disturbing to us that the very people who should be listening to the voices of the people are working to stifle the voices of the people,” said Allie Shinn, director of external affairs for the ACLU-Oklahoma. “The legislature may have forgotten that they took an oath to uphold the Constitution, which includes the right to peaceful assembly.”

Shinn said the ACLU is looking at “all options” concerning the new law, which may include a court challenge.

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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