‘Critical Infrastructure’ Bill Is a Major Threat to Freedom of Speech – Shepherd Express

Posted: November 17, 2019 at 2:11 pm

If I am part of a human chain participating in an act of civil disobedience where no one was harmed, could I spend six years in prison and be forced to pay a $10,000 fine? If an aggressive anti-protest bill that is making its way through the Republican-controlled Legislature becomes law in Wisconsin, the answer very well could be yes. AB 426 seeks to silence activists with the threat of felony charges for protesting at critical infrastructure facilities.

In 2015, Wisconsin passed a law making it a felony to interrupt or impair services provided by WE Energies (WEC Energy Group, Inc.). The newly proposed bill would expand upon those provisions to specifically include companies that operate a gas, oil, petroleum, refined petroleum product, renewable fuel or chemical generation facility. While advertised as an effort to protect Wisconsins infrastructure, the real impact of the bill would be to criminalize peaceful protesters and suppress the freedom of speech.

Here in Wisconsin and across the country, climate protesterswho are often members of Native American tribeshave been exercising their constitutional right to protest the impending damage to their lands, homes and livelihoods. This proposal would put these demonstrators at risk of being criminally prosecuted for engaging in peaceful, nonviolent civil disobediencelike staging a march that interferes with a tanker truck delivery or blocking a roadway into a refinery.

Equally problematic is the bills ambiguous language, which fails to adequately describe what speech or conduct could subject protesters and organizations to criminal penalties. As a result, the bill would have a chilling effect on expressive activity and lead to self-censorship for fear of criminal prosecution.

Our country has a proud tradition of protestfrom the Boston Tea Party to the Million Man March to the Water Protectors at Standing Rockand as long as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has existed, it has been defending the rights of protesters to speak their minds and assemble together. The ACLU believes that dissent is a form of patriotism, all people have the right to free speech and the freedom to stand up for what they believe in, and when people are able to speak out against injustice, it strengthens American democracy for every citizen.

Unfortunately, it increasingly looks as if this anti-protest bill will pass the Wisconsin Legislature. However, this gives Gov. Tony Evers the opportunity to do the right thing by vetoing the bill and ensuring the people of Wisconsin maintain their right to peacefully protest.

Importantly, this is not a partisan issue. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, vetoed an anti-protest bill in 2017, noting the proposal was vague, overbroad and will have the effect of restricting both free speech and the right to assemble. The right to join with fellow citizens in protest or peaceful assembly is at the very core of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Threatening criminal charges against those who participate in exercising these rights would be a critical blow to our functioning democracy.

Chris Ott is the executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin.

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'Critical Infrastructure' Bill Is a Major Threat to Freedom of Speech - Shepherd Express

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