Protesters gathered in the streets of downtown Bellingham in October to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Ashley Hiruko/Lynden Tribune)

OLYMPIA — Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, has introduced his Preventing Economic Disruption Act (PEDA) for consideration during the 2017 legislative session.

The measure targets illegal activities that aim to create economic harm by impeding legally permitted economic activities. It allows prosecuting attorneys to file special charges that increase penalties for misdemeanors and felonies.

“American citizens have a constitutional right to assemble, speak freely and petition their government via protests,” Ericksen said. “There is no constitutional right to harm other people or to harm the rights of other American citizens.”

The measure is prompted by recent illegal actions that have blocked rail and highway transportation, including a demonstration at a rail chokepoint in Skagit County last summer that blocked traffic between Seattle and Vancouver for 11 hours. The 42nd District senator also cites an occupation last month at the tracks leading to the Port of Olympia which blocked the flow of goods for a week, and “when it was dispersed by law enforcement authorities, participants rampaged through the downtown section of the city, blocking streets, tipping over trash barrels and lighting dumpsters on fire,” the senator says in a press release.

Ericksen compares this legislation to existing federal law regarding health clinics.

“Federal law is clear that you have a right to protest a health clinic, but you do not have a right to physically deny a person access to a health clinic. The same rules should apply to citizens engaged in other legal activities. We know that groups are planning to disrupt our economy by conflating the right to protest with illegal activities that harm the rights of others. We need this legislation to protect the rights of all citizens.”

The bill states an intent to protect the constitutional rights of all citizens: “The Legislature recognizes and fully supports the ability of individuals to exercise their rights of free speech, press and peaceful assembly, and to engage in other constitutionally protected activities. The Legislature finds, however, that there is no right to harm another person or prevent another person from exercising his or her rights.”

According to the bill, if a court finds that a participant in such illegal activities intended to create economic disruption, sentences can be extended 60 days for a misdemeanor, six months for a gross misdemeanor and 12 months for a felony.

The measure also clarifies that those who fund or sponsor such actions can be charged as accomplices. Courts are allowed to levy treble damages. Organizers and funders would not be liable for “bad actors” who infiltrate their events and are not directly coordinated by the sponsors of the event.

Ericksen’s effort had critics quickly after he announced it Nov. 16. The next day, Jaxon Ravens, Washington State Democrats’ chair, issued a statement on the “plan to criminalize Washingtonians’ use of the First Amendment,” calling it “inflammatory” and “excessive.”

Referring to Ericksen’s recent role as deputy director of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the state, Ravens also said, “Republican State Senator Doug Ericksen must be auditioning for a role in the Trump Administration. Ericksen’s plan to crack down on our First Amendment rights is straight out of the Trump playbook and has no place in America. We already have laws protecting people’s lives and property. This menacing grandstanding by a Trump loyalist serves no purpose other than to chill dissent and discourage free speech.”

Ericksen’s proposal also got front-page coverage in the Seattle Times on Nov. 16 under the headline “Trump supporter in state Senate says some protests are ‘economic terrorism,’ should be felonies” and then on Nov. 21 drew editorial comment that “‘Criminalizing’ protests could do more harm than good.”