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Oregon Legislation Aims to Criminalize Environmental Civil Disobedience

ACLU charges that bills that target actions against logging companies "effectively criminalize civil disobedience for one particular group."

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

If you lie down in the road or sit in a tree to stop the clear cutting of old growth forests, you may be an "environmental terrorist," an Oregon lawmaker charges. 

A tree in Oregon's Elliot State Forest (Photo: Francis Eatherington/flickr) The ACLU of Oregon is sounding the alarm over the state bills touted as targeting "environmental terrorism" but that the rights organization says would "effectively criminalize civil disobedience for one particular group."

The bills in question, House Bill 2595 and House Bill 2596 were passed on Monday with overwhelming support.

HB 2595 criminalizes any act that "intentionally hinders, impairs or obstructs, or attempts to hinder, impair or obstruct, the performance of the forest practice," and

Makes first conviction subject to maximum penalty of one year's imprisonment, $6,250 fine, or both. Makes second or subsequent conviction subject to maximum penalty of 18 months' imprisonment, $125,000 fine, or both. Requires mandatory minimum term of 13 months' imprisonment and mandatory minimum fine of $25,000 for second or subsequent conviction.

HB 2596, The Register-Guard summarizes, "seeks to clarify that a private company contracted to log or otherwise manage state forest land can sue activists for financial damages related to any disruption caused by their protests. Such civil lawsuits could result in financial judgments against protesters."

Rep. Wayne Krieger (R-Gold Beach), who carried both bills and is owner of a tree farm, said that HB 2595 "addresses environmental terrorism," and said the bill would "allow your district attorney to charge these terrorists with a crime and make them accountable."

"There's been a 30-year reign of terror by these people having no respect for the rights of others," the Associated Press quotes Rep. Wayne Krieger, R-Gold Beach, as saying. "If they want to do civil disobedience, they can do that. It's part of the Oregon Constitution, and the federal. But when they go beyond that and start chaining themselves to trees, locking themselves to equipment, and laying down in the road, and in any way they impede access, then they have gone over the line."

The Oregonian reports that

The legislation comes amid divisive efforts to increase logging in Elliott State Forest near Reedsport and proposals to increase logging in federal forest lands. Environmental activists affiliated with Cascadia Forest Defenders and Cascadia Earth First! staged protests at Elliott State Forest in recent years and at the Oregon State Capitol in May and June 2012, which led to arrests.

The Cascadia Forest Defenders say a mandatory minimum is not a reasonable response to nonviolent direct action, and that the legislation may be counter-productive:

Looking at a list of the crimes that have mandatory minimums, most of them are related to drug and weapons possession, robbery, assault, child pornography and other violent crimes.  Nonviolent direct action has no place in the mandatory minimum category, and this will not be a quick fix.  Says Jason Gonzales of CFD in his testimony, “Creating a mandatory minimum prison sentence won’t stop us from fighting these projects but it will change the way we have to fight them.  My very genuine concern is that it will force large sections of our movement to take their actions further underground.  Indeed, instead of stopping us, it may encourage us to accomplish more when risking so much.  Ultimately it will further clog an already burdened court and prison system with peaceful protesters who clearly do not deserve such an outrageous mandatory minimum sentence.”

Becky Straus of ACLU of Oregon said, "House Bill 2595 is effectively criminalizing civil disobedience for one particular group, and we think it's really very dangerous to give this sort of discretion to law enforcement," The Oregonian reports.

"It's taking conduct that can already be penalized under our criminal code and heightening the criminal penalties of the conduct, simply because of the content of the speech and the type of person who engages in the conduct."

The measures now head to the state Senate, where Krieger says “the votes would be there” for them to pass.

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