NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A state law that carries a possible five-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of trespassing in the area of a pipeline should be declared unconstitutional, environmentalists and others said in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge is aimed at 2018 legislation approved amid protests over construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline, an oil conduit in south Louisiana that has since been completed. The bill added pipelines to the list of items considered "critical infrastructure" in Louisiana, and provided for a five-year maximum prison sentence for anyone convicted of "unauthorized entry" to those installations.
Before the law was approved, the suit says, "those who engaged in peaceful demonstrations or civil disobedience in the vicinity of pipelines or pipeline construction sites faced the possibility of a misdemeanor charge of trespass if they remained on the property after being forbidden."
More than a dozen arrests were made after the pipeline language was added to the felony infrastructure statute. Many of the arrests, the lawsuit contends, were made on property that protesters had been permitted to enter.
The lawsuit notes a state judge's ruling in December that, while allowing pipeline construction to continue, confirmed that the pipeline's builders had trespassed on a small area of land without gaining necessary permission. Owners of the land in question are among plaintiffs in Wednesday's lawsuit, with the environmental group Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Plaintiffs also include some of the protesters and a journalist who, the suit says, were arrested for being in an area where they had permission to be from a landowner.
They say the law is unconstitutional because it is vague, overly broad, targets free speech and expression and singles out a particular viewpoint — opposition to fossil fuel-carrying pipelines — for punishment.
The law also deals with penalties for damaging infrastructure but the lawsuit does not target that part of the statute, Bill Quigley, an attorney for the plaintiffs said.
The lawsuit names Attorney General Jeff Landry as a defendant. Landry's office issued an email statement Wednesday saying he will "vigorously defend the law."
"The environmental groups who filed this suit are free to protest, but they are not free to do it in a manner that obstructs and threatens infrastructure," the statement said.
An oil industry association, the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, backed the legislation last year and defended it in a news release Wednesday. The statement said the legislation was crafted so as not to infringe on constitutional rights. "This important law protects Louisiana and its citizens from individuals who attempt to unlawfully interrupt construction of pipeline projects or damage existing facilities, which not only puts the trespassers at risk, but also risks the lives of first responders, employees, and the surrounding communities and environment," LMOGA attorney Tyler Gray said in the release.