Tag Archives: chilling effect

Under Cover Of Jargon

The Indiana Statehouse is confusing. Often, that confusion is intentional. Lengthy bills are written in turgid “legalese,” and go on for pages. I’m a (recovered) lawyer and my eyes frequently glaze over.

And very often, you don’t have to be a hard-core libertarian to wonder: is this law really needed?

That was my first question when I received an email asking about Senate Bill 471, described as follows:

Would heighten the penalties for protests near oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure by creating the offenses of “criminal infrastructure facility trespass” and “critical infrastructure facility mischief.” The bill provides that an individual who knowingly enters critical infrastructure facility without permission commits critical infrastructure facility trespass, a Level 6 felony punishable by up to 30 months in prison. Under the bill, recklessly or knowingly defacing such a facility constitutes critical infrastructure facility mischief, punishable by up to six years in prison as a Level 5 felony. In either case, the individual may additionally be liable to the property owner for damages, costs, and attorney’s fees. An organization found to have conspired with an individual who commits either offense may also be liable for a fine of $100,000. The bill newly defines “critical infrastructure facility” under Indiana law to include a range of oil, gas, electric, water, telecommunications, and railroad facilities, as well as any “facility that is substantially similar” to one of the listed facilities.

No one wants to see a “critical infrastructure” damaged. But a bit of digging suggests that more is going on with this bill–being pushed in several states by ALEC, evidently in reaction to Dakota pipeline protests– than the protection of “critical” utilities.

As my correspondent notes,

This description is accurate, but to get into more specifics one of the most troubling provisions is Ch. 10, Sec. 4 that says if an organization is found to be a conspirator with a person convicted of either trespassing or committing criminal mischief on “critical infrastructure” the organization can be fined up to $100,000. Sec. 5(a) could also potentially be interpreted as creating a cause of action by someone who has suffered damages not only against the person who caused the damage, but an organization found to be a conspirator with that person, to recover those damages. If that was the case the organization could be liable for more than a $100,000.

A Sierra Club officer explains the effect:

A couple of years ago the Hoosier Chapter was in discussions with some Northwest Indiana groups about a protest at the BP Whiting Refinery to oppose its expansion to allow it to process tar sands petroleum. When it became clear that some of the groups were contemplating civil disobedience, the chapter withdrew from the discussions, since the Sierra Club forbids illegal activities. In the event, about 40 people sat in front of an access to the refinery and were arrested for trespassing. I believe that most were let go without a fine. Under the proposed law, could we be found to have participated in the protest even though we withdrew? Could we be found liable for informing the public about the protest via our website, FB, and twitter, even though we didn’t support the civil disobedience? Certainly we would have to think long and hard about even participating in such discussions under this bill.

And that, I think, illustrates the actual purpose of the bill: to stifle dissent.

Indiana already has laws against trespassing and damaging property. S.B.471 ramps up the severity of the potential charges–from misdemeanors to felonies–and greatly increases the penalties. Although the bill contains a recitation that it is not intended to apply to “constitutionally-protected activities” (a provision added to mollify opponents of the measure), the question from the Sierra Club officer illustrates the chilling effect.

If one or two people at a protest inflict damage that was unintended and unforeseen by others, those others–including not-for-profits and civic organizations–run the risk of being hit with enormous fines. Of course they would “think long and hard.” That’s the whole point.

I am aware of no evidence that existing measures against trespass and property damage are inadequate or ineffective. But unnecessary and chilling as it may be, S.B. 471 is apparently moving “under the radar” toward passage.

This is how it’s done by the big “players” who understand how the system works.

While public attention and media coverage (such as it is) are focused on high-profile measures like bias crimes and teachers pay, troubling laws get a pass–in both senses of that word.