Inconsiderate Protesters, Intolerant Speech
By Stephen Tuttle | July 22, 2023
Last month, there was a bit of a dust-up at North Central Michigan College (NCMC) in Petoskey. They have a regular, ticketed event called the Luncheon Lecture Series, and on June 22, the lecture didn’t go so well.
The invited speaker was Paul Meneghini, the Community Engagement Manager for Enbridge, and his lecture involved the Great Lakes Tunnel Project which you might know better as the Line 5 tunnel. The lecture took a turn for the unfortunate.
As a brief refresher, Enbridge is a multinational energy and pipeline corporation based in Alberta, Canada. They operate four wholly owned pipelines in Michigan totaling 930 miles, including the infamous 645-mile-long Line 5, built in 1953, which starts in Superior, Wisconsin, traverses the Upper Peninsula, and terminates in Sarnia, Ontario. It includes a 4.5-mile stretch that is actually two lines under the Straits of Mackinac.
Line 5 has been controversial since its inception, particularly among tribal nations across whose land it travels. According to the Sierra Club, there have been 29 documented leaks across the length of Line 5 spilling 1.1 million gallons of crude oil and liquified gas products. (In 2010, a different Enbridge pipeline, identified as 6b, ruptured and spilled more than a million gallons of tar sands liquid into Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, near Marshall, Michigan.)
Since a Line 5 rupture in the Straits would be catastrophic on multiple levels, Enbridge is boring a tunnel under the Straits as an alternative. Line 5 will be placed within a concrete tube in that tunnel. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has ordered Line 5 shut down, and a federal judge ordered Enbridge to halt operations of a segment of Line 5 until they move it off tribal lands. Nevertheless, Enbridge continues to operate Line 5 while they appeal those rulings.
As Mr. Meneghini was speaking, protesters interrupted by forcing themselves into the lecture hall while shouting their opposition to Line 5. The brief dust-up, caught on an attendee’s cell phone, was loud but not particularly violent from either side. The protesters, who did not have tickets for the event and were possibly trespassing, physically pushed themselves into the lecture hall only to be physically pushed back out by a group that included the NCMC president.
Now accusations of assault are being made, law enforcement is involved, and the college president’s actions are being investigated. It’s all sort of pointless.
We have been debating Line 5 long enough that new information is almost non-existent. Opponents believe any accident in a pipeline across the Straits, in a tunnel or not, would be so catastrophic that Line 5 should simply be shut down forever, and the Canadian company shipping Canadian product to a refinery in Canada should build their pipeline through Canada.
Enbridge and Line 5 supporters say it provides most of the propane in the state—65 percent in the U.P., 55 percent statewide—after being stripped out of liquified natural gas at Rapid River, Michigan. (Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy puts the figure at just over 50 percent statewide.)
The issue is now before the courts and, since a treaty with Canada is involved, Congress. Louder and louder protests are not likely to change anything. Nor will after-the-fact howls about First Amendment rights. Trespassing is not protected speech. Shouting down someone with whom you disagree is not protected speech. Trying to grab a microphone out of the hands of an invited speaker so they can’t speak is not protected speech. Behaving inconsiderately might actually be protected but it’s not likely to garner support.
Line 5 opponents had already been scheduled to present their side of the debate at a future Luncheon Lecture series. They will likely win that argument with the content of their position, not the volume of their voices. Their “protest” in June could have done them more harm than good.
Meanwhile, in Traverse City, a hair salon owner provided an excellent example of creating a problem where none previously existed. She declared, in a social media rant, that she would not provide services to transgender people, who she said should go to a pet groomer. Having dug herself a hole, she just asked for a bigger shovel and declared she had “no problem” with gay or lesbian customers but did with transgender people because she doesn’t want the “woke dollar.”
As offensive as her comments were, they might be protected speech. There is no known transgender customer who has been refused service, so no victim to run afoul of the city’s anti-discrimination ordinances. (There could well be such a customer by the time you read this.) Planning discrimination is offensive morally but maybe not legally.
The intrusive protests in Petoskey, and public statements of ignorance and intolerance in Traverse City, furthered no causes and damaged the sources more than the targets.