- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2016

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - A defense lawyer in the Oregon wildlife refuge occupation case argued Monday that a federal conspiracy charge leveled against over two dozen people is constitutionally vague, could threaten free speech and should be dismissed.

Attorney Amy Baggio made that argument and others on the first day of legal motions in the case stemming from the Ammon Bundy-led 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that started Jan. 2, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported (https://goo.gl/9SJGG1 ).

The conspiracy charge provides a “sphere of protection” for federal employees, but it’s so broadly worded that it could restrict free speech and assembly designed to criticize the federal government, Baggio said.

“This statute can chill, it can threaten not only First Amendment expression but the Second Amendment right to bear arms,” Baggio said.

The occupiers in their takeover of the refuge wanted the government to relinquish public lands to locals and free two imprisoned ranchers.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight challenged Baggio’s statements, saying the conspiracy statute in this case is not about speech but about conduct. Knight said what makes their conduct criminal is the conspirators’ agreement to prevent federal officers from doing their work at the refuge.

U.S. District Judge Anna Brown said the statute does not criminalize mere criticism or mere protest.

“It criminalizes force, intimidation or threats against public employees preventing them from doing their jobs,” the judge said. Brown added that it’s OK to criticize U.S. Bureau of Land Management employees, but preventing them from doing their work on their property isn’t allowed under law.

The defense also wants a weapons charge against some of the occupiers dropped. It accuses some of the defendants of using or carrying a firearm to further a crime of violence. They contend that the underlying conspiracy isn’t a “violent crime.”

Knight argued the underlying conspiracy represents a violent crime, but he conceded that determining that presents a “close call” for the court.

Defense lawyers also asked prosecutors to give more specifics on the allegations against each defendant, to help determine who might go to trial together.

Brown says she’ll rule on the motions in the near future.

A Nevada man who participated in the Oregon occupation pleaded guilty last week to a federal conspiracy charge. In exchange for Corey Lequieu’s plea, prosecutors agreed to drop weapons charges.

The trial for the other 25 defendants is set for Sept. 7.

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Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, https://www.oregonlive.com

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