May 6, 2021, Lafayette, LA – Today, a federal judge allowed a challenge to an anti-protest pipeline law to proceed against a Louisiana District Attorney and sheriff. Activists and a journalist who were arrested under the law sued, arguing that it violates the First Amendment and due process. Today’s ruling rejects a motion brought by the defendants urging that the case be dismissed.
“This law is nothing less than an effort to strong-arm Water Protectors, land owners, and concerned citizens into submission and silence us,” said Anne White Hat, lead plaintiff in the suit who was arrested and charged under the law. “It leaves the land and waterways, the pristine bayous, defenseless against the ongoing and increasing onslaught of environmental destruction by the triad of oil and gas industry leaders, LMOGA, and ALEC that makes decisions that ultimately are not in the best interests of the water and our natural world, and certainly not in our best interests as citizens who rely on clean water for survival.”
The law expanding the definition of critical infrastructure was written by the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association (LMOGA) to include pipelines. The legislation became law on August 1, 2018. Prior to the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association’s bill, the critical infrastructure definition included only enclosed facilities like refineries and chemical manufacturing and water treatment plants. Louisiana’s vast network of pipelines, most of which are underground, underwater, and difficult to see, run through private property and public land throughout the state. More than a dozen protesters have been arrested under the law since it took effect in 2018. Before the law went into effect, those trespassing on property without authorization or remaining after being forbidden faced misdemeanor charges. Now they face serious felonies, punishable by up to five years in prison, and heavy fines.
“This law was designed to target advocates’ speech, but its sweep is so vast that anyone is vulnerable and everyone should be alarmed,” said Pam Spees, a senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “We look forward to demonstrating how breathtakingly unconstitutional this industry law is.”
The lawsuit argues that the law, which makes it a felony punishable by five years in prison to be anywhere on the 125,000 miles of pipelines that run throughout the state without permission, violates the First Amendment and due process. The plaintiffs who prevailed are protesters and a journalist who were arrested on a construction site in the Atchafalaya Basin immediately after the law went into effect, despite having the legal permission of the landowners to be there. According to the lawsuit, locations deemed “critical infrastructure” could be “completely invisible and virtually anywhere.” It argues the law is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad because it is impossible to know when and where one is trespassing, and that it has had a chilling effect on protests against pipelines. Attorneys also argue that it targets environmental justice advocates because of their political views, an argument borne out by the arrests.
This critical infrastructure law is part of a national effort to crack down on environmental activists across the U.S. The first of these laws was passed in Oklahoma in 2017, creating severe penalties for interfering with pipelines and other “critical infrastructure” and “conspiring” to commit such interference. The bill’s sponsor explicitly noted that the law was introduced in response to pipeline protests. In January 2018, shortly after the Oklahoma legislation was enacted, the corporate-funded, politically conservative group of state lawmakers and corporate representatives known as ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, adopted model legislation based on the Oklahoma critical infrastructure law, and has pushed for adoption of the laws in many states. Critical infrastructure bills have been introduced 23 times in 18 states since 2017, 14 times in 2019 alone.
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.