Editorial: Bill labeling protests as ‘terrorism’ threatens to chill free speech

By The Herald Editorial Board

It’s not surprising that the heightened political rhetoric of the presidential campaign and White House transition would spill over into state politics. Disappointing, but not surprising.

Claiming he sought to take a stand against “illegal protests” and “economic terrorism,” state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, announced this week that he planned to introduce legislation during the session beginning in January that would allow felony prosecution of protesters who block transportation and commerce, vandalize property, threaten jobs and put public safety at risk.

His bill would create the new crime of economic terrorism, classifying it as a Class C felony, punishable by a sentence of five years in prison, a $10,000 fine, or both. For comparison’s sake, third-degree assault of a child is a Class C felony. The legislation would also go after those who financially sponsor such protests.

Ericksen, who was President-elect Donald Trump’s deputy campaign director in the state, said the legislation is related more to protests during the past year that sought to block oil and coal trains than to anti-Trump protests that have followed Trump’s election. But recent protests that blocked traffic might easily fall under Ericksen’s “economic terrorism” definition.

And that broad and incendiary language is the problem with Ericksen’s bill.

In an Associated Press report Wednesday, Doug Honig, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said Ericksen’s loose terminology appears “to be targeting civil disobedience as ‘terrorism.’ ”

“Let’s keep in mind,” Honig continued, “that civil rights protesters who sat down at lunch counters could be seen as ‘disrupting business’ and ‘obstructing economic activity.’ ”

Labeling protesters as terrorists threatens to chill First Amendment freedoms of speech and assembly.

And it’s unnecessary.

This is not to condone those — separate from lawful and peaceful protesters — who vandalize property or threaten violence. But there are already laws that address those violations.

There has been no reluctance to arrest and prosecute those who blocked tracks to stop oil and coal trains.

When more than 2,000 protesters gathered near two oil refineries near Anacortes this May, 52 people were arrested and cited for trespassing after the protest blocked railroad tracks. One person was cited for resisting arrest.

And five people were arrested in August for blocking tracks near Bellingham for 11 hours, holding up four Amtrak trains, another passenger excursion train and freight trains, including a coal train.

Both protests did block commerce and transportation, if only briefly; and there were impacts. The August protest delayed passenger and freight operations unrelated to the protest’s target of coal shipments. You can question the logic of someone who would voluntarily place themselves in the path of a freight or passenger train, but it’s a stretch to call such an act terrorism.

That’s a term that should be reserved for the worst instances of politically inspired violence.

Where the law has been broken, the penalties are appropriate to the violations.

Ericksen’s bill might advance in a state Senate that is controlled by a Republican-led coalition, but faces a tougher road in what is likely to remain a Democratic-led House and the veto pen of Gov. Jay Inslee.

Ericksen’s bill, then, amounts to a protest, and that’s his right as a lawmaker.

Most years that would’t be a problem. But this coming session — with biannual budgets, funding on public education and related tax issues to be resolved — there’s too much at stake to consider a protest bill that threatens to block the progress of lawmakers.

Get it off the tracks.

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