Uncivil Disobedience

Your mother always said not to buy what you can’t afford – and the case of Tim DeChristopher explains why.

In 2008, when George W. Bush’s administration sought to auction off several drilling leases before Barack Obama took office, DeChristopher bid on a series of oil leases on 22,000 acres near Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah valued at $1.7 million. The catch is, he never intended to pay for them. He said he bid up the auctions to prevent oil companies from ruining the environment in the area, which hosts some of Utah’s most awe-inspiring wonders. DeChristopher terms it civil disobedience. The Justice Department, however, calls it fraud.

One federal prosecutor calculated that DeChristopher’s actions drove up the price of the leases by $300,000, causing one bidder to lose more than $600,000 and depriving the Bureau of Land Management, which owned the drilling rights, of more than $900,000. Incidentally, the auctions were later declared invalid and all sales nullified – meaning none of the parties actually lost any money.

For the act, DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in prison, a $10,000 fine and three years of probation, much to the chagrin of environmental activists. The environmentalist’s supporters argue that the justice department should have dropped the charges or gone easy on DeChristopher because his actions didn’t actually harm BLM or oil investors. They allege that the government pursued such a strong sentence only because it was acting on behalf of oil company interests, protecting big oil corporations’ profits over the people’s desire to save the environment.

The judge, however, pointed out that DeChristopher’s actions were illegal, no matter what the context. “I'm not saying there isn't a place for civil disobedience. But it can't be the order of the day.” Federal prosecutors also argued that a harsh sentence would deter others who might want to follow in DeChristopher’s auction-fixing footsteps.

Is this a case of little guy versus corporate behemoth? Or is this more like an arrogant kid thumbing his nose at the man, the law and anyone who stands to benefit from their rule? Those supporting DeChristopher have already come out with comparisons to Rosa Parks, Ghandi and other protest leaders who used civil disobedience to draw attention to monumental wrongs governments were perpetrating.

I think that goes too far. Rosa Parks dared to sit at the front of the bus, something she should have had the right to do. Other civil rights leaders sat in at counters they should have had the right to sit at. Ghandi sold salt he should have been allowed to traffic. Regardless of what you think about the morality of drilling in Utah, there’s no way to argue that buying something without intending to pay for it – ie, breaking a contract – is a fair principle the American justice system is failing to uphold.

Indeed, civil disobedience does not merely require that one break any law to make a point; it requires that one break an unjust law. The federal provision governing auction fraud is, unfortunately for DeChristopher, not an unjust one.

So while DeChristopher’s supporters celebrate him as a hero, they might want to take a look back at the lives of the people they’re comparing him to. They might not see much of a resemblance.

Posted by Laura Williams on Jul 28, 2011

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