The Legislature late Tuesday approved a bill that’s intended to protect critical infrastructure from destructive protests but was criticized as an attempt to shut down peaceful free speech.
The legislation creates four new crimes related to trespassing on a critical infrastructure facility.
The bill would also allows a judge to order restitution for property damage to any
victim of the four new crimes.
The bill was tweaked in the House to address free speech concerns by adding language recognizing the right of Kansans and citizens of the state’s four sovereign nations to protest peacefully while protecting important infrastructure.
The final bill also removed vandalizing and defacing property that would have constituted a crime under the bill.
It also eliminated a reference to the new crimes created by the bill from the definition of “racketeering activity” found in the Kansas Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
The bill was backed by the petrochemical industry, which said in testimony the increased penalties are essential to safeguarding sensitive infrastucture critical to the economy.
The legislation covers natural gas pipelines, the water supply, dams, railroad tracks and transmission facilities for radio and television stations, among others.
It also covers the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility and the Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State University.
Critics have said the bill is part of a coordinated effort by fossil fuel interests to shut down political speech “in pursuit of their own economic and political interests.”
Rabbi Moti Rieber said the final bill was less onerous than earlier versions, “however it still felonizes political protest against fossil fuel infrastructure.”
Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, called on the governor to veto the bill.
“Kansas’ legislature is still deep in climate denial, and instead of dealing with that, it passes a bill written by the fossil-fuel industry to make demonstrations against inaction into felonies,” Rieber said.
“This bill is still anti-free speech and anti-climate, and we call on the governor to veto it,” he said.
Democratic state Rep. Boog Highberger said the bill was too broad, explaining it could lead to charges against someone trespassing on a field to skinny dip in a pond with a distant oil pump elsewhere on the same parcel of land connected to a pipeline.
“This bill is a solution in search of a problem,” Highberger said. “This is not necessary. It’s overbroad.”
Highberger said there had been no charges brought in Kansas in 2020 and 2019 under the statutes that are being revised in the bill.
Democratic state Rep. Christina Haswood, one of two Native Americans serving in the Legislature, said there is no evidence of the problems that the bill is intended to address.
“This bill targets the Native American community where we’ve seen similar legislation pop up around the country,” Haswood said.
“The bill will disproportionately impact the Native American Community (and) our constituents who exercise their First Amendment right by peacefully protesting.”