Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Cliven Bundy and Tim DeChristopher: Is civil disobedience ever justified?
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Citizen activists angry at the BLM recently drove four-wheelers up Recapture Canyon, which is closed to vehicle traffic. In 2008, Tim DeChristopher protested BLM oil and gas leases by illegally bidding on 14 parcels of land. These purposeful violations of federal regulations raise a number of public policy questions.
Are the protests of the conservative off-roaders in southern Utah, and the liberal Tim DeChristopher, similar in nature?
Pignanelli: “The great theorists and practitioners of this form of resistance to law have told us that civil disobedience requires the disobedient citizen to suffer the legal consequences of his or her unlawful act." — Joel Brenner
Civil disobedients Cliven Bundy, DeChristopher and the off-roaders committed a crime that is inexcusable in 21st century American society — attempting a publicity stunt without strong public relations support. Thus, the message was garbled or nonexistent, and their cause suffered setbacks. To make a point, make sure that point is easily ascertained and grasped by the public. Rosa Parks succeeded because she had a strategy and everyone knew why she was violating the law.
"The Sagebrush Rebellion" to alter federal dominion of Utah lands is a decades old movement, incited by Democrat Gov. Scott Matheson. Frustration and anger are rational responses when Washington, D.C., bureaucrats impose their will without sensitivity to local concerns. I share the belief of many citizens that the most efficient method to alter the current status is demonstrating Utahns are equal or better stewards of public lands. So, if last week a bunch of well-scrubbed experts illegally trespassed on federal lands to highlight how the Feds are irresponsible and unreasonable, the reaction across the country would have been positive. Instead, millions of Americans witnessed weekend warriors with assault weapons ramming recreational vehicles into the wilderness. What was the point?
Webb: This matter seems pretty straightforward, but in reality it’s easy to get into some deep political philosophy, colored by our own political beliefs.
In the eyes of the law, DeChristopher’s crime was probably more serious than riding a four-wheeler on a closed trail. But federal regulations were certainly disobeyed in each case. We are free to violate laws, based on principle or conscience. But then we must accept the consequences. If too many of us think we can decide what laws we will obey and what laws we will violate, then the rule of law is undermined, and chaos will result.
America’s governance system differs from a totalitarian regime in that we, as citizens and voters, select who makes the laws, and we can influence them to change laws — or vote them out of office. Working through governmental processes to improve laws is a much better route than simply violating laws we don’t like.
Should the off-roaders be charged with a crime and, if found guilty, suffer the consequences — as did DeChristopher?
Pignanelli: The protests by the conservatives and the liberals are similar because the target is the same — the federal government. The protagonists intentionally and willfully thumbed their nose at a law they believe is unjust. DeChristopher served time for his crime, and the recent protesters must be punished. Otherwise, what's the point of civil disobedience? In fact, they should welcome any reaction from the government. Nothing breeds a cause better than a martyr.
Webb: I was critical of DeChristopher and said he should be held accountable. The off-roaders should also be held accountable. We can choose to violate laws, but then we ought to be man enough to accept the consequences.
Is civil disobedience ever a legitimate form of protest?
Pignanelli: Our country was founded on civil disobedience. Mormon heritage, which my children proudly carry, is built on the shoulders of gritty individuals who bucked authority. (Our Italian legacy of defying the Feds is more complicated.) Much of the entrepreneurial spirit in the country is built upon nonconformist fiber. The success of these historic challenges was predicated on a message and a strategy. Unfortunately, we were witness to the exact opposite in the recent past.
Webb: As Americans subscribing to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, we know we enjoy God-given rights that government didn’t give to us and can’t take away. We also revere the Constitution as the supreme law of the land, to which all lesser laws must conform.
One could argue that if a law violates one of those God-given rights, or a constitutional principle, then we are justified in disobeying it. But not so fast. Who gets to decide when a law is in violation? If everyone gets to decide for themselves, then we have anarchy. Therefore, we have a court system to decide those weighty matters, and we also have the ability to change or eliminate bad laws through the legislative process.
Thus, civil disobedience — flagrantly violating a law — is rarely justified, especially in our country where we have effective options. That said, I would not absolutely rule out disobeying a law that did violence to a deeply held belief. But if I did so, I would expect to live with the consequences. It would have to be something worth fighting for, worth going to prison for.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D’Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: email@example.com