By Guy Page
A handful of Vermont state senators want to extend ‘criminal threatening’ statutes to protect state officials, school board members, and other “groups of persons” from threats of injury or death. The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont warns the bill “risks potentially chilling political expression.”
Under a bill discussed yesterday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Vermonters found guilty of threatening state officials, Vermont school boards, and other groups of people in schools and other public areas, could be imprisoned for up to five years.
The push for S.265 began following an angry call to the Secretary of State’s office following the 2020 election was reported by Condos. Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault later found the call was not prosecutable. Momentum grew after school boards in Vermont and nationwide were faced with non-violent but vocal groups of parents angry over Critical Race Theory instruction and mask mandates.
In a response to a national school board group’s calls for action against ‘domestic terrorists’ at school board meetings, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland Oct. 4 promised Department of Justice and FBI intervention “measures designed to address the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel” in every jurisdiction in the U.S.A. – of which Vermont is one.
Garland later backed off the statement, and school board associations in Vermont and across the U.S. repudiated the national school board letter.
What’s the purpose of S.265? Co-sponsor and Judiciary Chair Richard Sears said Vermont needs to protect mask mandate enforcers and school boards.
I can try to explain it as one of the sponsors of the bill,” Sears (D-Bennington) said in a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting yesterday. “What we’re attempting to get at, without naming just election workers – originally the request came from [Secretary of State Jim] Condos – we were also looking at the store owner who’s threatened over a masked mandate…. what about a school board that’s threatened, for example.”
The other sponsors are Sen. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor), Rebecca Balint (D-Windham), Ann Cumming (D-Washington), Mark MacDonald (D-Orange), Richard McCormack (D-Windsor), and Andrew Perchlik (D/P Washington).
S265 would “expand the scope of the crime of criminal threatening.” It says “a person… making a threat that places any person in reasonable apprehension that death or serious bodily injury will occur at a place of public accommodation shall be imprisoned not more than five years or fined not more than $5,000.00, or both.”
The bill also defines “a place of public accommodation” as a school or other public meeting place. Elsewhere in the bill it expands ‘person’ to “a group of persons.”
The DCF employee hired to monitor threats to state workers after the 2015 murder of DCF worker Lara Sobel outside a Washington County court room offered written testimony that the bill is needed to protect workers dealing face-to-face with violent, troubled people.
“I was sorry to hear about the number of threats received by members of this committee, references to your colleagues’ receiving threats and the threats spoken to last week by the Secretary of State to his office and other elected and election officials,” Shannon Morton said. “The impact that these can have on the threatened party and those that care about them is something we within the Family Services Division unfortunately know very well. Since we began diligently tracking threats and other staff safety incidents in 2015, we average about 110 reported incidents per year. These vary from direct in person threats, third party threats, threats on social media, verbal assaults, physical assaults and others.”
Harrison Stark of the American Civil Liberties Union of VT agreed the law must protect elected officials: “These threats are more than just attempts to threaten or intimidate particular individuals. They really are attempts to undermine our democracy, to erode the machinery of self-government and to force particular people essentially out of public life.”
But Stark said current law already covers these offenses – so S265 isn’t needed.
Defender General Matt Valerio agreed: “The activity that is currently set forth in this bill is already covered by a number of criminal statutes, not the least of which is simple assault, simple assault by physical menace, disorderly conduct, reckless endangerment, and aggravated assault.”
Stark also expressed concern about the threat to political expression. “In our view that language is both superfluous and unnecessary,” he said. “It also risks potentially chilling protected expression and certain forms of political hyperbole.”
Stark doesn’t cite this example, but elsewhere supporters of school board ‘protection’ point to supposed threats made by an angry mom who told a school board during a meeting she would ‘take them out.’ Yet supporters say it was a promise to take political action.
A revised draft of S.265 is scheduled for Senate Judiciary review Friday morning at 9:45.
Guy Page is publisher of the Vermont Daily Chronicle. Reprinted with permission.