Do Colorado Lawmakers Face Threats That Justify Felony Punishment? Or Is It Legit Free Speech?

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Brennan Linsley/AP
In this March 2013 photo, state Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, speaks at a podium during a debate inside the Colorado State Legislature, in Denver.

Colorado lawmakers will soon grapple with whether the law adequately protects them from threats and harassment. It’s a debate that touches on free speech, the role of public officials and the increasingly hostile atmosphere many say they experience.

“By serving the public, you are front and center a little bit more,” said Democratic House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, who’s had people show up at his house, or reach out to him and his family by email or social media. 

For him increasing the penalties wouldn’t make legislators safer.

The debate has been jump-started by HB20-1121, a new bill that would make threatening an elected official comparable to threatening a judge. Instead of a misdemeanor, it would become a class 4 felony, punishable by two to four years in prison and up to a half-million dollars in fines. 

Advocates see it as a deterrent, while opponents worry about criminalizing legitimate criticism.

“We’re supposed to have passionate discussions and debates about policy and nowhere am I wanting to prevent that,” said Democratic Rep. Kyle Mullica, a main sponsor of the measure.

The Thornton representative said threats he and his family faced after he sponsored a bill to increase vaccination rates in the last session convinced him of the immediate need for the new legislation.

“The experiences that we had last year had a profound impact,” he said.

For his cosponsor on the measure, Republican Rep. Matt Soper of Delta, the issue is less personal. He believes people have become more emboldened to threaten and harass public officials, and thinks the issue needs to be addressed. 

“It has a chilling effect on our democracy,” Soper said of threats against state lawmakers. If threats succeed in scaring lawmakers out of backing certain policies, “we just turn into a nation run by warlords... Basically the very powerful thugs out there could eventually run our democracy.”

Yet, even with bipartisan support, some members of both parties remain wary of the proposal, even some who have faced threats themselves. 

In 2013, a Colorado Springs man was arrested for threatening to kill then-Democratic Rep. Rhonda Fields of Aurora because of her sponsorship of a high capacity magazine ban and a bill to require universal background checks for gun purchases. The case was eventually dismissed after she obtained a permanent restraining order against the man.

Fields, now a state senator, said she’s undecided on whether the bill is necessary but, is sympathetic to the desire for it. 

KC Becker, Cole Wist
David Zalubowski/AP
Rep. Cole Wist, R-Arapahoe County, fields a question during a House committee hearing, March 6, 2017, in Denver.

“I really need to kind of dive deep into this, but I believe that there needs to be something to try to address those who want to intimidate and chill and silence someone's values in their views,” she said. “Just because someone has a view on a variety of different things doesn't mean that you should attack someone by threatening their life or their family's life.”

The problem of public threats crosses gender lines, party affiliation and ethnicity at the legislature.

House Minority Leader Patrick Neville said he filed a report with the Colorado State Patrol in 2018 minutes after a Twitter user posted that his daughters should be sexually assaulted. Neville said the comments followed a CPR News report about a satirical article the Republican leader shared on Facebook related to then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

The family of another Republican, former-Rep. Cole Wist, was threatened when he sponsored the so-called “red flag” gun law, in 2018. He said he had a police detail monitoring his house.

“What I hope is that the legislature will take these very difficult issues and not play party politics with them and instead have a thoughtful discussion about the 1st Amendment, and making sure that we protect the 1st Amendment, but also making sure that folks who decide to step up and run for elected office and try to work for the public good don't suffer threats and that their families aren't placed at risk,” he said.

District 39 Rep. Mark Baisley, Colorado House of Representatives, April 19, 2019.

The Colorado ACLU has come out in opposition to the measure and said there are already adequate laws in place. 

“Rendering these crimes as felonies versus misdemeanors for this category of individuals will not deter such assaults and threats,” said Denise Maes, the ACLU’s public policy director in Colorado. She worries the bill would end up imprisoning people who don’t pose an actual threat. “As we struggle daily with a booming prison population and a [Department of Corrections] budget at near $1 billion, we ask if this is the right policy.”

Rep. Mark Baisley, a Roxborough Park Republican, also thinks it’s unnecessary. He said he doesn’t feel vulnerable as a lawmaker. 

“I don't think we should take ourselves all that seriously,” Baisley stated. “We're citizen legislators. We are four months of a 12 month year and we're one of the guys. And so let's not think of ourselves too lofty.”

For other lawmakers, managing nasty social media posts has now become an unpleasant aspect of the job. Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City has developed his own unique approach to social media posts that are cruel without being directly threatening. He tries to trace the source, and then reaches out.  

“Where possible, I always try to instead have a real conversation with people, call them on the phone and just ask them to have a conversation about the disagreement.” 

He said the toxic environment does get to him, however, and after his next campaign, he’s considering an early exit from politics.