Enbridge Line 3 (copy)

Opponents of Enbridge Energy's plan to replace its aging Line 3 crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota protest in St. Paul before a state Public Utilities Commission meeting on the project.

Mitt Romney famously announced in 2011 that, “Corporations are people, my friend.”

That was an absurd statement. It is lunacy to suggest that corporations should have the same rights and protections as human beings.

But what is even more absurd is the proposal now circulating in the Wisconsin Legislature to give corporations more rights and protections than people. Republican legislators, and some Democrats who are apparently in the service of the fossil fuel industry rather than the voters of Wisconsin, are proposing a bill that would create super-protections for oil, gas and energy-industry conglomerates that seek to build pipelines and other controversial projects.

The goal of the legislation, a Wisconsin variation on measures that have been promoted nationally by the shadowy, corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), would impose extreme penalties on Wisconsinites who protest pipelines and so-called critical infrastructure projects—even in cases where those protesters are legitimately concerned that these projects pose threats to the environment, tribal lands or public health and safety.

According to the Center for Media and Democracy, “Protesters found guilty under the proposed changes could receive up to six years in prison, a maximum fine of $10,000, or both, for protesting on an energy company's property if the penalty under current law stays intact. And, because the bill would apply to all property owned held by the oil and gas industry in Wisconsin, protesters would face the same penalties for demonstrating at corporate headquarters as they would for demonstrating at a pipeline or other ‘critical infrastructure.’”

The multinational corporations that develop pipelines and other controversial projects are, of course, protected by laws against trespassing. They are, as well, protected by laws that penalize the damaging of property.

So why do they need special protections that extend beyond those afforded homeowners, farmers and small business owners?

Because they want to prevent protests. Corporations never want to face accountability. They hire lobbyists to thwart regulations. They hire lawyers to block legal challenges. Their influence is vast. But the people are not so easily bought off. When citizens object to pipelines and power lines and other projects that despoil the land and imperil public health and safety — with protests that sometimes include civil disobedience — it tips the balance back toward honest debate.

So why would legislators, especially Democratic legislators, propose extreme penalties for people who assemble to petition for the redress of grievances? Some legislators are simply doing the bidding of ALEC and the networks of campaign donors developed by the billionaire Koch brothers. Some are just rubber stamps who do as legislative leaders tell them. Some are fools who do not recognize the free speech implications of laws that threaten to fill our jails with citizens who dare to practice non-violent civil disobedience.

Whatever their motivation, they are wrong.

“This is a solution in search of a problem. People can already be prosecuted if they damage property,” said Patricia Hammel, a lawyer with the Madison chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. “The oil company’s property should be no different than your propriety, my property, the tribes’ property. They don’t deserve any special protection.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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