Crime bill could make criminals of hunting foes

November 24, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- It wasn't debated; it wasn't even mentioned on the floor of the Senate, but slipped into the huge Senate anti-crime bill passed last week is a provision that would make peaceful protest against hunting illegal in America.

The bill, which passed by a 95-4 vote, would make it illegal on all federal land to "interfere" with a hunter.

Not only would speaking out against hunting be illegal on federal land, but even silent protest against hunting could be barred.

It could be illegal, for instance, to hold up a picket sign that says: "I oppose hunting."

It would not be illegal, however, to hold up a sign that says: "I favor hunting."

But how come this provision was not debated on the Senate floor and how come no public hearings were held on it?

Because it was tucked into the anti-crime bill as part of the "managers' package," part of what the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- Joe Biden, D-Del., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, -- horse-traded behind closed doors.

The bill makes it illegal for a person to "obstruct, impede or otherwise interfere" with a hunt on federal land, punishable by up to $5,000 in civil fines.

[Federal land, by the way, makes up about one-third of the entire United States. And about 85 percent of federal land is open to hunting.]

While 47 states already have hunter harassment laws, some jurisdictions have been reluctant to use them because of the constitutional problems they raise.

Only about 60 people have been arrested under these laws, and the majority have been found not guilty or have had the charges dropped or dismissed. And about five months ago, Montana's hunter harassment law was struck down by a state judge.

Under the Senate anti-crime bill, which applies to federal land and which is where most big game hunting in America takes place, hunters are not only protected against peaceful protest, but can actually get an injunction barring such protest before it takes place.

Because this seemed to me an obvious abridgment of the right of free speech, I called Robert Peck, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, to see what he thought.

And he thinks it is a very bad provision. There are at least four problems with it:

1. It bans peaceful protest.

2. It is not "viewpoint neutral." It affects only those opposed to hunting, not those in favor of it.

3. It is "inherently vague," because the clause that says you cannot "interfere" with a hunter can mean virtually anything.

4. It provides for "prior restraint", allowing hunters to stifle speech before it has a chance to occur.

"Considering both sides went to great lengths to make sure the abortion anti-blockade bill did not prohibit peaceful protest, it is amazing that this bill, which does prohibit peaceful protest, got through the Senate without a word of debate," Peck said.

Could it be that most senators did not know this provision was in the bill they were voting on? I asked.

"That is most likely the case," Peck said.

One of the first people to notice what the Senate had done when it passed the bill last week, was Wayne Pacelle, the national director of the Fund for Animals.

"This bill would stop peaceful, non-violent dissent of a non-obstructionist nature on public lands," Pacelle said. "It is absurd."

Pacelle said he, too, thought few senators had any idea that the hunter harassment provision was in the anti-crime bill, which runs more than 400 pages and provides for such things as more police and a ban on assault weapons.

But the hunter harassment provision will become law unless it is removed by a Senate-House conference committee.

"We are hoping that members like Don Edwards [D-Calif.], chairman of the Civil and Constitutional Rights subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, and Paul Simon [D-Ill.], who holds a similar position in the Senate, will do something about this provision," Pacelle said.

So there is hope that a hunting license will not also become a license to do away with free speech.

But one word of advice for our lawmakers:

Pay attention next time. Every now and then something important happens in the Senate.

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