Political protests will always be controversial. Even those with the best of intentions can be ineffective or even harmful.
A bill has recently been introduced to the Washington State Legislature in an attempt to prevent protests from causing economic disruption. Officially entitled the Preventing Economic Disruption Act, some have taken to calling it the "Economic Terrorism Act." While it was first announced last year, it will be under consideration during the legislature's 2017 session. The first section of the bill states:
The legislature recognizes and fully supports the ability of individuals to exercise their rights of free speech, press, and peaceful assembly, and to engage in other constitutionally protected activities.
However, the bill could be used to punish protesters for exercising their First Amendment rights. The bill would allow a prosecuting attorney to file an allegation against a protester, accusing them of committing an offense with the intention of causing economic disruption. If convicted, someone would receive additional time on their sentence, ranging from two months to a year.
The stated intent of the bill is to increase the sentencing on crimes that are committed by protesters. Why is breaking the law in an act of protest worse than breaking the law in any other instance? Considering America's history of civil disobedience, one would think the opposite would be true.
The man who proposed the bill, Senator Doug Erickson, has essentially admitted that the bill is designed to protect the oil industry from protests. The bills examples punishable offenses are not limited to vandalism or violence either. It covers attempting to "obstruct, hinder, or delay" any commercial vehicle, or interfering with a pipeline. As far as this bill is concerned, everyone who participated in protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline should be in prison.
The very idea of preventing protests from causing disruptions is misguided. Supporting the right to protest until it become disruptive is illogical, because protests are designed to cause disruption. That is precisely how they call for change. Free speech can be disruptive, but it is enshrined in the United States Constitution as a fundamental right. Freedom is difficult and complicated, but the alternative is simply unacceptable.
The bill may have been proposed in Washington, but this is still a national issue. One state violating the Constitution puts the whole country at risk. Similar bills could be proposed in other states, or even at the national level.
Violence is not an acceptable form of protest, but we should not allow the drive to prosecute criminals to undermine the rights that define the United States as a nation.