One by one, state legislatures across the country are introducing laws to crack down on political protest. Unfortunately, Colorado is now included in this growing list.
Colorado’s Senate Bill 35 was introduced into the Colorado Senate on January 11th. It successfully passed out of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Natural Resources & Energy last week, and will face it’s second reading on the Senate Floor this coming Monday.
Senate Bill 35 significantly increases the punishment for Coloradans convicted of interfering—or attempting to interfere—with oil and gas gathering operations. The sentence would change from a class 2 misdemeanor to a class 6 felony, which is punishable by 12 to 18 months in prison and a fine of $1,000 to $100,000.
On its face, this bill seems innocent. Tampering with oil and gas equipment is indeed extremely dangerous, and can result in severe damages to private property, personal health, and the environment.
But the devil is in the details. What is particularly frightening is buried under Section 2 of the introduced version of SB17-035, which amends C.R.S. 18-4-506.3, subsection 2 (the underlined part is the change to the current law):
Any person who in any manner, without the consent of the owner or operator, knowingly alters, obstructs, interrupts, or interferes with or attempts to alter, obstruct, interrupt, or interfere with the action of any equipment used or associated with oil or gas gathering operations or places another in danger of death or serious bodily injury commits a class 6 felony.
Let’s think about what types of activity this bill could encompass. Lying on a public road to block the transportation of drilling equipment? Certainly. Protesting outside of a fracking site? Possibly. Encouraging oil & gas employees to stay home from work as a silent protest? It’s a stretch, but a case could be made.
It is vital to note that the above examples are all forms of peaceful protest. If convicted, non-violent protestors could face up 18 months in prison and up to $100,000 in fines (not to mention court costs).
And let’s not forget about the lifelong consequences of a felony conviction—which can prevent you from acquiring a Federal student loan, renting an apartment in a building that requires a background check, buying a gun, and even voting.
If passed into law in its current form, Senate Bill 35 would have devastating consequences on political speech. The overly-broad nature of the bill could apply to many different forms of protest. As a result, the bill would have a chilling effect on protestors—who would understandably be more hesitant to participate in political action.
The overarching mission of Common Cause is to uphold the core values of American democracy, and empower all people to make their voices heard as equals in the political process. Protesting is one tried and true method that citizens use to convey a message to our elected leaders. By putting this freedom in jeopardy, we are threatening the very core of our democracy.
The broader implications that Senate Bill 35 could have on political speech in Colorado is deeply concerning. For this reason, we will continue to closely monitor its movement through the Colorado General Assembly over the coming weeks.
Office: Colorado Common Cause