Violent Environmental Activism Is Not Protected by the First Amendment

#NoDAPL protesters "assembling" on Interstate 5 (Credit The Beliingham Herald)

#NoDAPL protesters "assembling" on Interstate 5 (Credit The Beliingham Herald)

Everybody agrees that the First Amendment guarantees our freedom of speech and “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” But there is a growing movement among environmental extremists and their apologists to redefine just how violent protesters can be and still be protected by the First Amendment.

For example, Huffington Post recently argued that federal and state efforts to rein in violent environmental activism—such as operations that damage pipelines and other critical infrastructure—are actually designed to “criminalize fossil fuel protest.”

According to HuffPost, this growing “legal crackdown” has resulted in the arrests of environmentalists who posed no “realistic threat,” including a woman sentenced to prison for recruiting activists to vandalize the homes and otherwise terrorize the employees of an animal testing laboratory, and a man who spent nearly a decade in prison for conspiring to bomb government and commercial facilities—including a dam in California—even if it meant killing innocent bystanders.

The article opened with the recent sentencing of Michael Foster, who was convicted of numerous felonies and sentenced to three years in prison (two suspended) for shutting down the Keystone pipeline in a coordinated attack with his coconspirators—collectively known as the Valve Turners—who simultaneously sabotaged pipelines in three other states.

According to the HuffPost, “Foster’s action was part of a protest in solidarity with the indigenous activists fighting to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.” Because the “mild-mannered mental health counselor … with short-cropped silver hair and soft features” hadn’t “killed anyone” or “even injured anyone,” he was unfairly persecuted as a result of this new crackdown against legitimate environmental protestors. 

But what HuffPost and other supporters of environmental extremists are ignoring is that these actions against our nation’s critical infrastructure—such as Foster’s pipeline sabotage—can have catastrophic consequences. According to The New York Times, as Foster turned the shut-off valve, “the wheel and the ground below his feet began to shake” because “the valve wasn’t designed to be closed against pressure as Foster had done.”

Not all “peaceful protesters” are as lucky. Just days before the HuffPost story ran, seven activists protesting the Dakota Access pipeline were charged with reckless endangerment, obstructing a law enforcement officer, and disorderly conduct for blocking Interstate 5 in Bellingham, WA in February 2017. Their “peaceful” protest caused a multi-car crash that resulted in serious injuries for multiple innocent bystanders.

Perhaps most troubling is a quote in the article from “think tank scholar Jamie Bartlett” who argued in the usually level-headed Foreign Policy magazine, that “’formal, peaceful political activism—that all-important route to redress—isn’t working’ and that ‘the signs of growing radicalism in green circles are already there, if you know where to look.’”

What the HuffPost left out was Bartlett’s prediction that environmental extremists will, in his view, justifiably become even more violent:

Climate activists certainly have a central grievance—a catastrophic, existential grievance that is supported by scientific research … From the perspective of environmentalists, there are mounting reasons to doubt the political prospects for saving the planet … And when time runs out, as I’m afraid it will, books like Deep Green Resistance—a sort of how-to guide for radical environmentalists—urge abandoning ineffective peaceful routes and hint darkly that industrial sabotage is the only avenue left open.

Bartlett is being coy. The Deep Green Resistance doesn’t “hint darkly” about industrial sabotage. It explicitly urges its followers to engage in Decisive Ecological Warfare and launch “coordinated attacks on energy infrastructure around the world” in an effort to “guarantee the survival of a livable planet.”

The attacks, they wrote, “would take whatever tactical form militants could muster—actions against pipelines, power lines, tankers, and refineries, perhaps using electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) to do damage … Fossil fuel energy availability would decline by 90 percent.”

And the damage, they acknowledge, would be cataclysmic:

The industrial economy would come apart. Some, perhaps most, governments would institute martial law and rationing … Most existing large-scale institutions would simply collapse … The death rate would increase, but as we have seen in examples from Cuba and Russia, civic order can still hold despite the hardships.

It is for this reason that—while we must always defend the right of every American “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”—we must also rein in violent environmental activism before it gets worse.