LNP Editorial: “State bill would have chilling effect on our right to demonstrate”

by the LNP Editorial Board, 5/3/19

Photo: A group of protesters opposed to the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline surround a bulldozer at a site off Laurel Run in West Hempfield Township in October 2017. RICHARD HERTZLER | Staff Photographer


With Senate Bill 323, state Sen. Scott Martin, a Republican from Martic Township, has reintroduced legislation that, he writes, “shields taxpayers against the additional costs resulting from illegal activity during protests.” The bill represents Martin’s second attempt at legislation he first proposed in 2017, after the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in several Midwestern states that cost those taxpayers $38.2 million. Martin was worried in 2017 that “Pennsylvania could become ground zero for major demonstrations surrounding the construction of the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline” and remains concerned about the potential for such issues here.

We have concerns — shared by some community members — regarding Martin’s proposal. But before delving into those, and for the sake of fairness, we want to provide clarity on what Martin’s bill is and what it isn’t, in his own words, as stated in his bill’s January memorandum seeking co-sponsors:

— “The fundamental right to free speech, assembly and petition is part of the bedrock of democracy and is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I of the Constitution of Pennsylvania. However, it is improper for taxpayers to bear the financial burden for response costs related to illegal or destructive activity that stems from the right to protest on private or public lands.”

— “In addition to remedies currently allowed by law, this legislation would allow for the recovery of costs by holding a person liable for emergency response costs if the person participating in a demonstration is convicted for a felony or misdemeanor. It is important to note that this legislation does not include summary offenses, nor will it impact an individual’s right to legally exercise their First Amendment rights in any way. Only those who break the law and are convicted in a court of law would be impacted by this legislation.”

— “Individuals have a right to protest, and we as leaders in our community have a responsibility to work to ensure that these protests are held peacefully and in a manner that will not burden the local population.”

We appreciate that Martin is adamant about protecting our constitutional right to assembly.

We find it proper that his proposal only focuses on individuals convicted of a felony or misdemeanor during a demonstration.

And we acknowledge that Martin is trying to look out for the best interests of taxpayers.

Nonetheless, we do not believe in the necessity of this bill.

We believe it could — intentionally or not — have a chilling effect on all protests and assemblies, the overwhelming majority of which are lawful and peaceful.

Martin is correct when he calls such assemblies “the bedrock of democracy.” As such, we should be extremely wary of passing laws with even the potential of discouraging those kinds of gatherings. They are what make this nation great and strong.

And free.

We should not support any bill that might deter people and groups from fully partaking of their First Amendment rights.

While Martin’s bill makes it clear that it only applies to those “convicted of a felony or misdemeanor,” it is not hard to imagine peaceful demonstrators having second thoughts about participating in certain events.

We are not alone in having these concerns.

In a recent letter to the editor, David Wood of Manheim Township wrote: “As someone who has served in the military for over 31 years, I am very concerned with the unintended consequences of state Senate Bill 323. … Our nation was founded on the right to protest. I may not agree with your views, but I will fight to the end to protect them. This is critical to successful military and law enforcement service. Any law that may penalize the right to legally demonstrate is contrary to our American way of life.”

Wood’s military background lends a weight to his viewpoint that we should all consider.

And in an April 18 op-ed, Mark Clatterbuck, a founding member of Lancaster Against Pipelines, noted: “Martin suggests that democracy can’t afford such costly expressions of dissent. We suggest that democracy is bankrupt without it.” Clatterbuck also believes the bill is part of national, industry-backed efforts to stifle dissent, especially dissent related to the energy industry. He notes that “in the past two years alone, 10 states have adopted new measures hyper-criminalizing protest.”

Local attorney Mitchell Sommers, commenting in October 2017 on the first version of Martin’s legislation, called it “intolerable,” adding: “The goal is to financially break protesters. … Financial devastation is scary, and it leaves fewer marks than physical confrontation.”

We agree.

In no way do we advocate violence, destruction of property or illegal actions by protesters. When those things occur, the individuals responsible should be prosecuted and held accountable through existing criminal and civil avenues.

But we don’t need SB 323. In this case, the need to protect the spirit of the First Amendment far outweighs any need to protect taxpayers.