Many years ago, when I was a young Air Force officer serving as a missile launch officer (“finger on the button” guy) up at F.E. Warren Air Force Base just outside Cheyenne, I happened to notice a funny little story in the local paper. It seems Colorado tourism folks were running a contest to find a great new state motto. Wyoming’s then-governor, Ed Herschler, entered the contest and submitted “Just South of Paradise.” Gov. Ed, as he was known, was a Democrat serving as the governor of a largely conservative state. (When I registered as a Democrat there in 1981, the person at the County Clerk’s Office joked that I had increased the number of Democrats in Wyoming by a third). Gov Ed is long gone from today’s Wyoming politics.
And so, it should not come as a surprise that the state legislature in Wyoming, unlike Colorado, is solidly Republican. After the 2018 election, the Wyoming State Senate was made up of 27 Republicans and only 3 Democrats, while the State House has 50 GOPers and only 9 Dems. So, a pretty conservative state up to our north, right?
Well, Wyoming has long been sort of a puzzle to political science types like me. It was the first, back in its territory days, to give women the right to vote. Wyoming can be hard to pigeonhole, and so I was not terribly surprised by a recent story on Colorado Politics. It seems the GOP super-majority in both Houses has reintroduced a bill that then-Gov. (and Republican) Matt Mead vetoed at the end of his term last year. It would make it illegal to protest at a fossil fuel facility in such a manner as to impede production. The bill is titled “The Crimes Against Critical Infrastructure,” which is consistent with the long-honored tradition of naming your bill something you think people will support, rather than what it would actually do. And if signed by the new GOP governor, it will potentially take a swing at free speech, I think.
Well? What would it do?
That depends upon whom you ask. The GOPers argue that this bill would protect critical infrastructure from harm when crazy hippy tree-huggers try to protest at oil facilities. A more accurate view, I think, is that the bill would make it much more difficult to conduct any protest against, oh, I dunno, dangerous fossil fuel activities?
Last summer I drove from the southern border of Wyoming to very near the northern edge. I was struck with what I saw on that long drive, contrasted by what I observed in our beloved Colorado. As you drive out of Colorado, to Cheyenne, you certainly see fossil fuel facilities, but you also see hundreds of wind turbines. In Wyoming, there are certainly some wind turbines, but there are also oil facilities that run on for mile after mile. Clearly energy production is vital to the economy of Wyoming, and that critical need for oil is what, the conservatives claim, the new bill would protect.
I’m not a Wyoming resident anymore, but I still feel great affection for our northerly neighbor. But I love the Constitution even more. I find I am very worried by any government, at any level, that thinks it’s ok to limit free speech. Now I’m not talking about people committing crimes by sabotaging, for example, an oil well. Those folks are criminals. But I most certainly am talking about peaceful civil disobedience and protest. I truly believe that despite your own partisanship, you should be very concerned any time a government entity seeks to limit the free speech of others. Liberal or conservative or anything in between, your blood should boil, I’d hope, at free speech restrictions.
Are there appropriate and needed limits to free speech? You bet. The history of our nation and the court system is filled with interesting and important cases exploring how far free speech goes. You can’t, for example, claim a free speech right to commit fraud (e.g., “hey, want to buy my used car? It gets 721 miles per gallon!’), and you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater unless – and this is an important caveat – the theater is actually on fire.
We bang up against restrictions on free speech often, and it is not always easy to see where such speech is ok, and where it is not. But I would hope that the good people of both parties in our own Colorado state legislature would always assume, a priori, that the speech in question is protected. The opponents should always have the duty to show how speech is dangerous, rather than any of us having to argue for free speech.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.