AUGUSTA — Maine Attorney General Janet Mills said Thursday that a bill aimed at protecting free speech about climate change beliefs is unnecessary and misguided. Mills was speaking to state lawmakers during a hearing for a bill sponsored by Rep. Larry Lockman, R-Amherst.

Lockman’s bill would prohibit discrimination against a person based on their beliefs about climate change. The measure also would prohibit Maine’s attorney general from pursuing prosecution against anyone based on the person’s climate change views.

Mills said such a prosecution could not happen.

“Clearly, if we were to investigate somebody based solely on their speech, that would be a constitutional violation,” Mills said.

Proponents have said the bill was prompted by Mills’ collaboration with other state attorneys on an investigation into ExxonMobil related to climate change claims by the company.

Mills said Maine was not party to any lawsuits against ExxonMobil and that information to that effect that’s been circulated by Lockman and others is incorrect. But Mills declined to say whether her office may be party to an investigation into ExxonMobil.

An investigation led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in 2016 sought to find if ExxonMobil had violated any federal racketeering laws or committed fraud by misleading the public and investors on climate change.

Mills was among a group of state Democratic attorneys general who appeared to be working with Schneiderman on the investigation. When asked about her involvement in 2016, Mills issued a statement neither confirming nor denying the investigation but saying she was, “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.”

While Maine is not a party to any lawsuits, Mills told the committee Thursday that there are some lawsuits against ExxonMobil, including one by some of its shareholders that involve whether the oil giant suppressed information about climate change.

“One is by the investors who are suing and asking the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate whether or not ExxonMobil defrauded its own investors by squelching scientific information it was aware of many decades ago. These are not my allegations. These are the investors’ allegations,” Mills said.

Mills and others who testified before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee against Lockman’s bill said it isn’t about political free speech at all

Zach Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said he believes the bill would actually have the opposite effect from what Lockman intends. Heiden said he believes Lockman’s bill would suppress the debate on climate change and whether it is real.

“While it’s cloaked in the language of free speech, it’s actually an attempt to insulate from debate a topic of important discussion both in science and public policy,” Heiden said. “Freedom of expression means that all ideas can compete with one another on an equal footing, but it does not mean that all ideas are equally true.”

Dylan Voorhees, the Climate and Clean Energy Project Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the bill was not “particularly impactful in a legal sense.” But the measure did seek to send a message, he said.

“The wrong message, we believe, that climate change is a matter of belief and that scientific information should be ignored and denied,” Voorhees said.

Lockman said the bill was meant to specifically prohibit Mills from using her office to intimidate and suppress free speech around climate change.

He detailed a subpoena issued by U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker, that sought communications between ExxonMobil and a host of conservative advocacy groups and think tanks.

“While pretending this was a law enforcement investigation, Schneiderman made clear he was pushing a policy agenda,” Lockman said.

He argued his bill was still necessary even as Schneiderman’s coalition had appeared to “fall apart” and the subpoena issued by Walker had been withdrawn and “the climate science debate that this gang tried to shut down is now more energetic than ever.”

Lockman said his bill was needed so the state would “uphold rather than undermine the exercise of free speech on important public policy issues.”

The bill will be the subject of a work session before the committee in the days ahead before it goes to the full Legislature for consideration.

Correction: This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, April 7, 2017 to correct the hometown of Rep. Larry Lockman.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: thisdog