In our opinion: Tough consequences

Published: Friday, July 29 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Tim DeChristopher never could quite pull off the comparisons his defense team made between himself and Gandhi or Rosa Parks, and for good reason. Those two historical figures engaged in civil disobedience to draw attention to laws that oppressed entire sets of disadvantaged and downtrodden people. DeChristopher disrupted a federal lease auction and tried to draw a connection between oil and gas leases for sale and the threat of global warming.

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar has since withdrawn those leases, and yet we hear nothing from scientists that global warming is any less of a threat because of it. Had the laws Gandhi and Parks protested been withdrawn as quickly, that would have been significant progress, indeed.

Federal Judge Dee Benson understood the distinction. His decision this week to sentence DeChristopher to two years in federal prison, three years supervised probation and a $10,000 fine was a reasonable punishment. It is not as steep as the potential 10 years he could have imposed, but it is plenty severe. Two years in a federal prison is a long time. The sentence might have been more lenient while still satisfying justice, but even people who engage in civil disobedience must be prepared to accept consequences.

Despite well-meaning arguments by DeChristopher, his attorneys and supporters that such a sentence would not be a deterrent, that didn't seem to be the main issue on Benson's mind. He spoke about the danger of allowing the nation to govern itself "by point of view," and about the need to preserve society from anarchy. This was about the rule of law and maintaining the integrity of a federal auction, which cannot be made into a farce without consequences.

It was not as if DeChristopher had no other choice, Benson said. Indeed, the United States has a generous allowance for people to show their displeasure with government. They can peaceably assemble, petition government for a redress of grievances and say and publish virtually anything within broad limits of libel and slander laws. DeChristopher, who was part of a peaceful demonstration outside BLM offices in December of 2008, decided those freedoms were not enough. He pretended to be a legitimate bidder and won auctions on 14 parcels totalling $1.8 million, for which he had no intention of paying.

Perhaps his trial and sentence has served to bring attention to his brand of global warming concerns more than what a more peaceful protest would have done. His supporters seem energized to keep the cause alive while he is incarcerated. This isn't likely to be the last we hear of DeChristopher. But the integrity of federal auctions has been preserved.

One more thing: Both the protestors and Salt Lake Police deserve credit and thanks for not allowing post-sentencing demonstrations to get out of hand. Salt Lake Police, obviously well-trained for such things, diffused passions skillfully by allowing protestors the dignity of choosing to be arrested, fined or allowed to walk away. Protestors, for their part, showed they were committed to a peaceful demonstration. The entire city should be grateful.

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