by David Rogers, Executive Director

Making sense of the recent events at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is no easy task. Like much of the country and all of Oregon we have been watching closely. In the face of misinformation and misinterpretation of our position, let me be clear. We believe the militia occupiers should be held accountable for their actions. We have questions about the government’s approach to accountability in the specific case on Pete Santilli, one of those arrested. 

We are not representing Santilli or any of the occupiers. We are not defending what he has to say, only his right to say it.

Many find Pete Santilli’s videos and radio show to be offensive and repugnant. In America we are allowed to express our views, including antigovernment or sophomoric views, without fear of government reprisal. In the court of public opinion, we can reject this type of speech as hateful rhetoric, but we cannot be thrown in jail solely for our speech. Is that what happened here? That’s the question we are posing.

The ACLU has a long history of standing up for free expression and it often finds us strange bedfellows with groups we fundamentally disagree with. What it comes down to is the First Amendment applies to all people – no matter who they are or what they believe. 

We must stand up for this principle, even when it is uncomfortable, because when the government steps on one person's rights it is easier for them to do so with any of us. We must not waiver from this charge or we risk jeopardizing all of our rights. And, let’s be honest, we know that typically it is the advocacy efforts of disenfranchised communities that have suffered the most under this type of government overreach.

We stand in solidarity with the thousands of Oregonians, particularly in rural communities, who are peacefully protesting the unwanted militia occupation in Harney County. We hear the reports that some of the occupiers have been intimidating and threatening community members. These are not social change strategies we support. Likewise, it is not lost on us that what was framed as a protest about land rights has ignored the historic territory of the Burns Paiute Tribe and desecrated sacred cultural properties. These events need attention and accountability.  

We will continue to monitor this situation and others like it across the state as we have for 60 years here in Oregon. It is our job to ensure the Constitution works for all of us, even when it’s unpopular, while we also listen to feedback from our members, allies, and impacted communities. 

If you want to send us your thoughts, please do so here.