New crime carries tough penalty but not aimed to stop peaceful protests

Senator Robert Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids) talks during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting at the Capitol Building in Des Moines on Thursday, February 20, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Senator Robert Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids) talks during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting at the Capitol Building in Des Moines on Thursday, February 20, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Those who intentionally damage or try to damage infrastructure deemed critical to the safety and economic well-being of Iowans could face a criminal charge carrying a 25-year prison term and a fine of up to $100,000 under a bill passed by the Senate on Tuesday and sent to Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Senate File 2235, which passed 35-13, would pertain to acts of sabotage committed against critical infrastructure or facilities related to telecommunications and broadband, electricity, water, pipeline, wastewater treatment, energy, transportation and hazardous materials, along with associated systems that are "crucial lifeline systems" that affect Iowans.

Sen. Tom Shipley, R-Nodaway, the bill’s floor manager, said the new criminal offense — a Class B felony carrying a fine of $85,000 to $100,000 upon conviction — is not intended to impede legal, peaceful and legitimate protests, but rather sought to target things such as terrorist threats that could crash critical infrastructure, disrupt the Iowa economy and put lives in peril.

“I believe this is a good bill,” Shipley told his Senate colleagues. “This bill protects the kinds of protests that Dr. King taught us all about. Those people are protected. But it goes after those bad dudes that would cause harm to the least among us.”

Senators agreed to send the bill to the governor after an amendment offered by Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, was rejected on a party-line vote. The amendment attempted clarify the measure would not be a prohibition against constitutionally protected picketing, demonstrations or other legal means of protest similar to language in the Iowa code’s terrorism section.

“It makes sense we would also do it for this crime of critical infrastructure sabotage,” Hogg said in seeking to amend the measure “to ensure that peaceful, non-violent protest activity” would not be deemed a Class B felony.

But Shipley urged his colleagues to “resist and reject” Hogg’s proposed language, saying “the First Amendment of the Constitution does not carry with it the right to interrupt critical service to others.

“One citizen’s right ends when another’s begins. If no such interruption or impairment occurs with the demonstration, this would not be a violation of this crime,” he noted. “You may have issues with trespassing or criminal mischief but not critical infrastructure sabotage.”

Many viewed the bill as a response to recent protests against an underground oil pipeline across Iowa placed by a Texas-based company.

That includes Ed Fallon, director of Bold Iowa, which was among the groups opposed to the project.

“While it’s sad that so many lawmakers were again duped by Energy Transfer Partners, the silver lining is that Bold Iowa’s coalition of environmentalists, landowners and farmers came together to work with labor in a common cause,” Fallon said Tuesday. “We’re going to build on that.”

But Shipley said that opposition was misplaced, saying “I watched oil move through this state long before we ever had arguments about pipelines, and that oil was moving a mile and a half from my house. Nobody bothered to protest the problems with that. But they couldn’t stand the idea of a pipeline.

“This is safe, but we’re protecting this kind of a system to make sure that those among us who need electricity — which I believe we all do — are going to be protected. Those who need heat, those who need fuel, all those things.”


In other action, senators voted 48-0 to approve changes and return to the House a bill intended to stop most “food shaming” in schools.

House File 2467 establish guidelines for dealing with parents who owe money for school lunches.

Schools will be prohibited from posting names or otherwise identifying students whose parents owe money for school meals. In some cases, schools have required those students to sit together at tables separate from classmates, do chores to pay for meals or not participate in school activities, lawmakers said.

Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, the bill’s floor manager, offered changes to the House-passed approach that would give schools more flexibility and fewer prescriptive requirements in dealing with school meal debt at the end of each school year, which he said topped $60,000 in some districts.

“School districts know and understand the situations of their families in their district better than we do,” he said in advocating changes designed to “improve the workability of the bill,” provide information concerning free and reduced lunches to parents and enable schools to recoup owed money by garnishing state tax refund or gambling proceeds when appropriate to cover their budgets.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Des Moines, called the bill “a positive step forward” to ensure that “the sins of the parents should not be visited on the child” — a situation that has been a problem in a number of school districts.

“The children whose parents are either unable or perhaps unwilling to pay for their lunches have been subjected to embarrassment and even to humiliation because they’re either denied a meal or given an inferior meal or otherwise exposed to public ridicule,” Quirmbach said.

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