Today attorneys representing forest defenders in Oregon won a major victory at the Oregon Court of Appeals defending the constitutional right to protest by arguing that a state law is unconstitutional under the federal constitution. The Court struck down the statute it its entirety. The state statute at issue, ORS 164.886, “Interfering with Agricultural Operations,” was enacted in 1999 to discourage demonstrators from protesting against controversial timber sales in Oregon. It stated that if a person hindered, obstructed or impaired an agricultural operation they were guilty of a Class A misdemeanor crime and has been used to prosecuted dozens and dozens of nonviolent forest defense activists. The statute contained an exception to these prohibitions if the protesters were engaged in a labor dispute. Ninety-nine percent of all state prosecutions utilizing this statute were against non-violent protestors exercising their First Amendment rights. The Court ruled that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and struck the law in its entirety.
“This is a great victory for activists in Oregon and affirms that the Constitution is still alive and kicking!” said Lauren Regan, Staff Attorney and Director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center. “In an era when activists are being maligned as ‘terrorists,’ it is very important that repressive laws like this one and other “ecoterror” laws are challenged and beaten from the law books as a patent disgrace to our constitutional rights and liberties. We are grateful to our courageous clients who placed their liberty on the line in defense of irretrievable forests, rivers and wildlife, and hope that this ruling will be viewed as an affirmation of the critical importance the right to dissent holds in our democracy.”
The CLDC argued, and the Court agreed, that “a person peacefully picketing against labor or logging practices on public or private land could, under the definitions [contained in the law], be attempting to obstruct an agricultural practice by another person on that person’s property by attempting to convince the person, the person’s employees, or the general public to alter the offensive practice” and that the law was thus facially unconstitutional in all applications.
In ruling that the entire statute was unconstitutional, the Court stated: “[H]ad the legislature known that a bill criminalizing all obstructions, impairments, and hindrances of agricultural operations also implicated serious constitutional questions, it would have chosen to avoid the issue entirely—particularly in light of the fact that the conduct at which the statute was primarily directed (vandalism, property destruction, etc.) was already prohibited by existing statutes.”
One of the appellants, George Sexton, a conservation director who was arrested at the infamous Biscuit timber sales added, “It is heartening that the 14th Amendment prohibits overzealous Josephine County prosecutors from making criminals out of courageous citizens who peacefully put their bodies between the log trucks and the illegal old-growth logging frenzy of public lands under the Bush Administration.”
Kudos to attorneys Lauren Regan, Misha Dunlap English, and Kenneth Krueshner for this hard fought victory.