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Editorial: Flow of freedom must come before pipelines

A bill awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature could put those who protest construction of oil and gas pipelines in Texas at risk of prison terms of up to 10 years, depending how the protest is carried out.

Under the measure finalized late in the session, protesters who interrupt operations or damage equipment relating to pipelines could be found guilty of a third-degree felony, punishable by from two to 10 years in prison.

We take no issue with the possibility of harsh penalties for those who willfully damage equipment, as that goes beyond non-violent protest and could even put lives at risk. Such actions are unacceptable.

Other elements of the measure make it less palatable. One calls for punishment of those said merely to be delaying construction of an oil or gas pipeline, or other property deemed by state law to be “critical infrastructure.”

According to the bill, those who enter pipeline property and delay construction commit a state jail felony. Two years in state jail is the maximum penalty for such activity. However, entering such property with the mere intent of property damage — even if they do not actually do it — also would be a state jail felony. And those who enter the property with intent to delay construction can be found guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, the most serious class of misdemeanors.

Pardon us for asking, but who is responsible for determining intent, and how, exactly, would that be accomplished?

The fact is ordinary, non-violent protests might work in just this way. It is important to remember protesters often are trespassing. During the civil rights era, protesters often broke the law by demonstrating on private property, too.

This means protesters usually should be arrested, and such an outcome is no surprise to those who participate in such demonstrations. Their goal is to draw public attention to a matter they believe should be corrected. The arrest may be part of that, and is entirely appropriate.

But making such people subject to multi-year prison sentences is absurd. Charge them with their actual crimes of trespassing or disorderly conduct. Those laws are already on the books.

This new law that would fill prisons with protesters is neither realistic nor right.

Another problem is that the bill fails to spell out exactly what constitutes a delay; is that one minute, one hour or one day? As it stands, it appears a delay could be whatever the targeted company says it is. That is not right.

Unfortunately, this appears more a move to stifle free speech than to truly protect “critical infrastructure.”

Of course it would be more comfortable for any industry to move aside pesky protesters so a controversial project could be built more quickly and with less publicity.

But this is America, where the right to protest is ingrained in our national identity and throughout our history, beginning with our founding. The Boston Tea Party, a protest by American colonists, was one of the first examples of civil disobedience. More are spread throughout our nation’s history.

Bad law or not, we doubt it will stop those who want to protest construction of pipelines or other projects. It will only clog a criminal justice system that doesn’t need any more stress. Abbott should veto this measure.

Today's Bible verse

“If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”

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