Arrested Protesters Can Challenge Louisiana Pipeline Law, Judge Rules

The two protesters and a journalist say a Louisiana law that designates the thousands of miles of pipeline in the state as critical infrastructure has chilled their free speech rights.

In this April 27, 2018 photo, trees in a cutback sit between an existing pipeline channel, left, and a new pipeline channel, on Bayou Sorrel in the Atchafalaya River Basin in Louisiana. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

(CN) — A federal judge has decided two protesters and a journalist arrested at a 2018 protest over the construction of a pipeline in Louisiana can continue to challenge the constitutionality of a state law that prohibits unauthorized entry near a pipeline.  

On Wednesday, Judge Robert Summerhay noted the protesters still sit under threat of prosecution from the local district attorney, Bo Duhé of the 16th Judicial District, even years after their arrests.

The judge said the protesters were in a position to continue their lawsuit after they said the threat of prosecution chilled their First Amendment right to attend future protests.

“Duhé has not disclaimed prosecution but there are no allegations that a charging decision has been made,” Summerhay, a Trump appointee, wrote in his 26-page ruling, adding the statute of limitations for the felony offense runs for four years, until September 2022.

Anne White Hat, Ramon Mejia and Karen Savage, a journalist, were arrested in 2018 at protests over the construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline that were held on private property with permission of the landowners but were close to the pipeline.

Their arrests came shortly after Louisiana enacted a law that defined the state’s 125,000 miles of pipeline as critical infrastructure. The law, drafted by the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, also upped the penalties for unauthorized entry into critical infrastructure from a misdemeanor to a felony with five years imprisonment, according to the protesters’ complaint.

The protesters say the law is unconstitutional because it is so vague that law enforcement and the public don’t know what actions near a pipeline are prohibited. Pipelines in Louisiana, the protesters said, can also run through private property or lie underground.

Their suit is against Duhé and former sheriff of St. Martin Parish Ronald Theriot, in his official capacity. The two had re-urged Summerhay to dismiss the protesters’ lawsuit after the case was transferred to the Western District of Louisiana.

In his order, Summerhay decided to dismiss the three environmental advocacy groups such as the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the landowners who had joined the protesters’ suit.

While the judge said some of the organizations and their members faced the threat of prosecution under the law for protests around the state, their harms couldn’t be remedied in this case because they did not say they were involved in protests in the DA’s district or the parish of St. Martin.

Furthermore, he added, the landowners did not show injury to their free speech rights.

The St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office for the 16th Judicial District and their attorneys did not return requests for comment.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, who is helping to represent the protesters, said critical infrastructure laws like Louisiana’s has been introduced as bills in 18 statehouses 23 times in the years following 2017.

Pam Spees, a senior attorney with the center, said it intends to show just how unconstitutional Louisiana’s law is.

“This law was designed to target advocates’ speech, but its sweep is so vast that anyone is vulnerable and everyone should be alarmed,” Spees said in a statement.

%d bloggers like this: