Sierra Club — “Holcomb Urged to Veto Anti-Protest Bill”

Mary Schuermann Kuhlman,Public News Service, April 8 2019
Opponents say a bill headed to Gov. Holcomb’s desk is aimed at silencing environmental protesters. (Fibonacci Blue/Flickr)

Groups representing tens of thousands of Hoosiers are asking Gov. Eric Holcomb to veto a bill they say infringes on the constitutional rights of protestors. 

Supporters of Senate Enrolled Act 471 say the legislation would help protect critical infrastructure including power plants, pipelines, and refineries by imposing steep criminal penalties and jail time for acts of civil disobedience and protest that involve trespass. Katie Blair, director of advocacy and policy at the ACLU of Indiana, countered the bill goes too far, and noted it was created in response to the 2016 Dakota Pipeline Protests.

“We know that these laws are backed by powerful interest groups looking just to squash legitimate challenges to corporate actions and policies,” Blair said. “This bill is one of many across the country that are trying to demonize protests and chill free speech.”

Proponents argue the bill would stop groups from paying protestors to break the law. But Blair explained that’s a crime already punishable by law. The measure would also make it a felony to trespass on facilities that she said are not typically considered critical infrastructure – such as paper mills, aluminum and pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities, and certain gas stations. 

Margo Tucker, assistant council for energy and environment with the Citizens Action Coalition, contended the bill is vague, as it states that “persons,” can be fined $100,000 for conspiring with an offender. That’s 10-times the current fine permitted by the law. 

“You risk one individual breaking away from the group and trespassing and then the entire organization or other people at the protest can be on the hook,” Tucker observed. “A $100,000 fine could be extremely detrimental, not only to one individual, but even a non-profit organization. You could bankrupt them.”

Tucker said the measure moved so quickly through the legislature, there was little time to fully examine the implications. And she believes it’s clearly targeting a certain type of political speech. 

“I would say that political speech is environmental protests and Hoosiers that are concerned with the domination of corporate interests over environmental concerns,” she said. “And then that’s going to encapsulate social justice and environmental justice protesters.”

Similar legislation has failed in many other states and has been vetoed by the governors of Wyoming and Minnesota. The ACLU of Indiana, Citizens Action Coalition, the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Sierra Club are among the groups that sent a letter to Gov. Holcomb requesting he veto the bill.

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