The sentencing on Tuesday of an environmental activist who disrupted the sale of oil drilling rights highlighted the nebulous space between lawful protest and illegal action.
Tim DeChristopher, 29, was sentenced to two years in prison for outbidding other parties seeking leases to drill for gas and oil on public land in Utah. He ultimately won the rights to drill on nearly 22,500 acres of land, but he never intended to pay for the leases -- only to force those who would drill out of the auction.
After a four day trial, DeChristopher was found guilty of making a false statement and violating laws on oil and gas leasing. U.S. District Judge Dee Benson rebuked him for flouting the law, noting at his sentencing that DeChristopher "had many other lawful ways to express his disapproval with the oil and gas leasing process." He added that if civil disobedience was "the order of the day," the result would be chaos. In court papers, the U.S. Attorney's Office used the same argument in pushing for subsantial jail time.
"A significant prison term will promote respect for the law," Assistant U.S. Atty. John W. Huber wrote. "This factor is perhaps most telling as it applies to the defendant's crimes where his acts, including post-offense conduct, champion disrespect for the rule of law."
But DeChristopher argued forcefully for the righteousness of his actions and suggested that such acts of civil disobedience remain one of the few effective tools citizens have to challenge the powerful. He made an impassioned speech to Benson that drew applause from supporters in the courtroom.
"You have authority over my life, but not my principles. Those are mine," DeChristopher said to the judge. "I'll continue to confront the system that threatens our future."
Prior to the sentencing, DeChristopher suggested that the case against him was less about enforcing the law than about setting an example in the treatment of those who practice civil disobedience. Huber re-enforced this view when he warned that too lenient a sentence would encourage others to "grab the limelight or gain fame."
"I don't think this case has been about what happened at the auction," said DeChristopher. "This case has been about the political views I've expressed and that I've encouraged people to commit civil disobedience."
Defense Attorney Ron Yengich said that the sentencing exposed an inequity in the justice system, with the powerful rarely held to account for their trespasses.
"The problem is we only impose the rule of law on people like Tim DeChristopher," Yengich said. "We never impose the rule of law on people who steal from poor people, destroy the banking systems or destroy the earth."