A conservative state lawmaker is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit discrimination against a person based on their beliefs about climate change.
The measure proposed by Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst, also would prohibit the state’s attorney general from pursuing a prosecution against an individual based on the person’s climate change views.
The bill, “An Act To Protect Political Speech and Prevent Climate Change Policy Profiling,” was prompted by a lawsuit filed by a group of Democratic state attorneys general, including Janet Mills of Maine, against ExxonMobil in 2016.
Lockman said his measure, which has nine Republican co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, and Assistant Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Newport, is a response to the concerns of Jonathan Reisman, an associate professor at the University of Maine at Machias.
Reisman is viewed by some as a leading conservative voice on environmental policy in Maine and has published numerous columns critical of what he calls, “climate alarmists.” He describes himself as a one of Maine’s more “prominent” deniers.
Neither Mason nor Cushing was available to discuss the legislation Tuesday.
“It’s a faith-based ideology of climate change hysteria and anybody who is a skeptic is immediately labeled a heretic who must be silenced and now they are using the legal system to do that,” Lockman said.
Reisman confirmed the legislation is being offered at his request. He said it was neutral toward which climate change views an individual might hold and is largely intended to protect an individual’s right to free speech. He said the measure is the result of the civil suit that Mills joined with other Democratic state attorney generals. That suit, headed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, seeks to launch a federal racketeering investigation against oil giant ExxonMobil for potential fraud for misleading the public and investors on climate change.
Reisman said based on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as “Citizens United,” political speech is deemed one of the most protected classes of free speech, but in their suit against ExxonMobil the attorney generals are trying to abridge that right and suppress the company’ views. “That’s what this bill is about, it’s a response to that, it’s a defense of Citizens United,” Reisman said.
“Here the Attorney General has made quite clear that she believes that opposition to the climate change policy of the Obama administration is a criminal offense. Her investigation is attempting to criminalize political speech that they disagree with.”
The summary of Lockman’s bill says it, ” … specifically prohibits the attorney general from investigating, joining an investigation initiated by another state or the federal government or prosecuting any person based on that person’s protected political speech. It also prohibits the attorney general from using the attorney general’s prosecutorial power to favor or disfavor protected political speech.
The bill also prohibits the state from favoring or disfavoring any person based on the person’s climate change policy preferences with regard to grants, contracts or employment.”
Mills declined a request for comment on Lockman’s bill Tuesday night.
But in a media statement she issued after joining the lawsuit in 2016, Mills wrote she is, “committed to using the authority of my office to address (global climate change) in a meaningful way by defending important Environmental Protection Agency regulations against attacks led by the coal industry and exploring litigation options that will hold the worst polluters accountable for their actions.”
Rachel Healy, the communications director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said her organization was discussing Lockman’s bill, L.D. 771, and had yet to take a position on it. Healy, in a message to the Press Herald, also said she believes Lockman’s bill may be the first of its kind in the nation.
Legal scholars on the left and the right have opposing views on the issue. With conservatives largely arguing that companies and individuals have a right to share their views on climate change without penalty, while those on the left argue that conspiring to intentionally mislead the public on the dangers of climate change is fraud.
In a September 2016 column published in the Daily Caller, Ronald Rotunda, a law professor at the Chapman University School of Law in California, argues that the case against ExxonMobil is a misuse of the prosecutorial powers.
“Fewer than 10 percent of Americans believe that human activity is causing the globe to warm, a position contrary to what many politicians embrace,” Rotunda wrote. “These prosecutorial tools – extensive discovery, interrogatories, depositions, document turnover, and the threat of fraud prosecutions – make scientific dissent riskier, more expensive, and career-ending.
“If Newton’s rivals had such tools, we’d still be studying Aristotelian physics, which reigned supreme for nearly 2,000 years. The prosecutors are chilling free speech. The marketplace of ideas, not prosecutorial power, should decide what is true or false.”
But Schneiderman, in a statement issued to reporters in March 2016 said, “The First Amendment, ladies and gentlemen, does not give you the right to commit fraud. Every attorney general does work on fraud cases, and we are pursuing this as we would any other fraud matter. You have to tell the truth, you can’t make misrepresentations of the kinds we’ve seen here. The scope of the problem we are facing, the size of the corporate entities and their alliances, the trade associations and other groups, is massive and it requires a multistate effort.”
Lockman’s bill would change state law to prohibit Maine’s attorney general from participating in that effort. Lockman said the bill is written so that it also would protect the free speech rights of those who do believe in the science behind climate change. He said the bill is not meant to create a new protected class under Maine’s Human Rights Act and the bill does nothing to amend that law.
“It would actually also protect people who believe that climate change is caused by humans, is an emergency and we’ve got to do something about it,” Lockman said. “If they want to have that view, I don’t want a Republican attorney general going after a left-wing think tank with a subpoena to chill their exercise of free speech. I think the more divergent opinions we have and the more robust the debate the better off we are going to be.”
Portland’s Rep. Matt Moonen, the Democratic House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the panel will hold a public hearing on Lockman’s bill on April 6.
Moonen said climate change is a real and serious issue, and his committee also takes seriously issues of discrimination, “based on age, sex, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity.”
“We have a lot of work to do this session,” Moonen said. “And I don’t think we should waste our time on issues that aren’t serious.”
Correction: This story was updated at 8:42 a.m. on March 22 to correct Rachel Healy’s title.
Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at: