EDITORIAL: Washington, the Bundy ranch and our rights

A sure sign of government tyranny: limits on dissenting speech.

The U.S. Department of Interior and other federal agencies, in rounding up several hundred cattle from the Clark County desert, are behaving like thugs loyal to a tin-pot dictator, not public servants who swore to support and defend the U.S. Constitution.

The federal government is well aware that plenty of people disagree with Washington’s decision to remove rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle from public range lands his family has used for more than a century. In fact, many people, including the Bundys, disagree to such an extent that they’re furious. And they want those rounding up the cattle to know it.

But federal authorities are using public unhappiness with the action as grounds to limit protests to that very action. They’ve closed off hundreds of square miles of public land. They’ve closed roads. And they prohibited protected assembly and expression across huge areas of Clark County. They even took the step of creating “First Amendment areas” — where no federal official or contractor directly involved in the roundup would ever have to see protesters.

You see, even peaceful protests can be intimidating to government types. If government types feel slightly threatened, they arm themselves to the teeth. When they arm themselves to the teeth, they’re far more likely to view a peaceful protest as cover for an attack on the government. And if they believe someone holding a sign or a camera might also have a gun, agents are more likely to hurt someone. Thus, the government suspends the First Amendment as a public safety measure: Citizens are denied their rights to peacefully assemble and engage in political speech because the content of that expression might be “intimidating” enough to make government agents overreact and hurt them.

Mr. Bundy’s 37-year-old son, Dave, found out as much Sunday when he was arrested. He said he was roughed up by heavily armed agents for taking photographs and peacefully protesting on a state highway.

“They got on their loudspeaker and said that everyone needed to leave,” Dave Bundy said. “I stood there and continued to express my First Amendment right to protest, and they approached me and said that if I didn’t leave, they’d arrest me.” The family has taken photographs that they say show government snipers on hilltops.

Yes, Cliven Bundy has been defiant in refusing to pay grazing fees, refusing to move his cattle and daring the government to seize the animals. Yes, his ever-growing base of supporters has been vocal and aggressive in denouncing the government’s heavy-handed response. But this dispute is about far more than grazing rights, the “threatened” desert tortoise and a supposedly fragile desert ecosystem that somehow has sustained cattle and the reptiles since the 19th century. It’s about the power of environmentalists and their federal allies to erase a way of life they disagree with. It’s about the federal government’s control over most of the land in the West — and 86 percent of Nevada — and its inability to manage all that land in a competent and productive fashion.

The First Amendment was written specifically to allow public criticism of the government and to protect citizens from persecution for putting forward even unpopular or offensive ideas. Free speech is a safety valve. Denying a forum for expression allows pressure to build, making an explosion more likely.

On Tuesday, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a former federal judge, ripped the Bureau of Land Management for its handling of the situation. “Most disturbing to me is the BLM’s establishment of a ‘First Amendment Area’ that tramples upon Nevadans’ fundamental rights under the U.S. Constitution.” He demanded that the area “be dismantled immediately.”

“No cow justifies the atmosphere of intimidation which currently exists nor the limitation of constitutional rights that are sacred to all Nevadans. The BLM needs to reconsider its approach to this matter and act accordingly.”

The governor was absolutely right and, fortunately, the BLM dismantled its “First Amendment areas” Thursday afternoon. Unfortunately, Washington has changed little else in its approach. The federal government is all about intimidation and overreach. It’s not terribly concerned about our rights, especially when they get in the way of its exercise of power. We can’t help but wonder what the current federal employee-to-cow ratio is in northern Clark County right now. Or how many rounds of ammunition those agents have. Federal authorities do not have a record of de-escalation.

As reported Friday by the Review-Journal, the government can’t even be open about potential criminal prosecution. A criminal case against another of Mr. Bundy’s sons, Ammon, disappeared from the federal court system’s electronic docket when a reporter asked the U.S. attorney’s office about it Thursday. The office’s non-spokeswoman, Natalie Collins, said, “We cannot comment on it.”

As far as the bureaucracy is concerned, we answer to them, not the other way around. That’s exactly why unaccountable agents have the authority to ignore the Constitution without consequence.

No doubt plenty of city dwellers are laughing at the rubes in ranching country over their disgust with the federal government. The dispute will be characterized as a rallying cry for the tea party. But this desert drama is the just the latest front in the decades-long government assault on all of our rights. If we don’t defend them, eventually we’ll lose them. Then the joke will be on us.

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