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Anti-Pipeline Protest Bill Moves To Senate

A bill discouraging protests against pipelines and other "key infrastructure" has passed out of the Kentucky House of Representatives after receiving an amendment quelling some advocates' free speech concerns.

The House approved the amended version of House Bill 44 on Monday to make tampering with the operations of a “key infrastructure asset” in ways that are dangerous or harmful a Class D felony punishable by up to five years imprisonment and up to a $10,000 fine.

Rep. Jim Gooch sponsored the amended measure, which passed 71-17 with bipartisan support. The bill now moves to the Senate.

Gooch drafted the amendment after speaking with labor and free speech advocates, who were concerned the bill’s original language would have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights.

“We made sure in this bill, in this language, that it is clear that we are not infringing with people’s rights,” Gooch said.

Democratic Rep. Terri Branham Clark of Catlettsburg thanked Gooch for the compromise language in the amendment.

“By removing the words ‘inhibits’ and ‘impedes’ it eased a lot of concerns some of us had on infringing on rights to protest,” she said. “Living in a district where I am five minutes from an oil refinery and have railroad tracks running through my backyard, I really appreciate our effort in securing public safety.”

A spokesman for the AFL-CIO said the union is neutral on the measure while the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky continues to oppose it.

Advocacy Director Kate Miller said the ALCU appreciates that the amendment narrows the scope of the bill, but still believes HB 44 would limit protest.

“We are still concerned that it could potentially chill First Amendment protected speech,” Miller said. “That doesn’t just include environmental advocates, of course we were thinking of folks who were protesting their wages not being paid.”

Lawmakers on the House floor questioned the bill’s impacts on protest actions similar to the Blackjewel miners who blocked a train loaded with coal to demand their unpaid wages.

Gooch said the bill would not affect those kinds of demonstrations, though he noted that blocking the railroads might be "a little bit questionable" under existing law.

The measure aligns with a national trend of states increasing penalties for activists who attempt to block fossil fuel infrastructure projects similar to the Standing Rock protests that impeded construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

Oklahoma passed anti-pipeline protest legislation in 2017 that has since become model legislation on the website for The American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative legislative nonprofit. Gooch’s original measure used language substantially similar to the ALEC legislation.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story implied a connection between this legislation and ongoing opposition to the proposed underground natural gas pipeline running through Bernheim Forest. The bill would not impact demonstrations as the measure only covers above-ground pipelines.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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