Idaho senators to amend anti-Occupy bill

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 1, 2012, 9:47 A.M.

Hearing Wednesday on HB 404, the bill to evict the Occupy Boise encampment from state property across from the Capitol (Betsy Russell)
Hearing Wednesday on HB 404, the bill to evict the Occupy Boise encampment from state property across from the Capitol (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - A key Idaho Senate committee has voted to amend the bill to evict the Occupy Boise encampment from state-owned property across from the Idaho Capitol, with likely amendments including removing an emergency clause and amending a portion allowing property left at the site to be disposed of as “litter.”

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, an attorney, said the litter clause raised legal and constitutional concerns, and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said he favored removing the emergency clause. If that happened, the bill would take effect July 1, rather than immediately when it’s signed.

There was just one dissenting vote on the committee, from Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, who said she opposed the bill and wouldn’t consider it even with changes.

Davis said, “Speech that’s uncomfortable certainly is entitled to protection of Idaho’s constitution and the 1st Amendment, certainly as much as speech that I agree with.”

The decision came after nearly three hours of public testimony, virtually all against the bill.

Russell Buschert, a businessman and 28-year Eagle resident, asked the senators, “Do you really think that if Jesus was in your chair right now that he would vote to evict these people?” He said, “The freedom of speech and the right to protest are the most precious rights we have.”

Mike Despot, a 35-year Boise resident and former state facilities manager for the Capitol Mall, asked, “Why is it an emergency to pass this anti-free speech bill?”

The encampment currently is legal, and has coordinated its vigil since November with state officials and local law enforcement.

Said Despot, “Since we are not breaking the law, I ask that you not turn us into lawbreakers.”

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s Senate sponsor, likened the Occupy encampment to someone camping in state parks or on senators’ own front lawns indefinitely. “They don’t have the right, nobody has the right to seize our common property for their own use, particularly for an unknown period of time, particularly month after month,” he said.

Monica Hopkins, head of the ACLU of Idaho, told the senators, “What they are doing is protected symbolic speech. .. This bill seeks to evict a given set of protesters and is crafted … in a way that is problematic.”

The bill now will move to the full Senate for amendments; any senator can offer amendments. It earlier passed the House on a 54-16 vote.

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