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Bill Would Increase Penalties For Rioters Who Wear Masks

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An Oregon lawmaker made her pitch Monday for a bill that would double the penalties for people convicted of rioting if they are wearing a mask at the time of the riot.

Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, told the Oregon House Judiciary Committee that House Bill 4126 is meant to discourage people from hiding their face in an attempt to avoid arrest. “The measure is not intended to prevent protest or to keep citizens from exercising their First Amendment rights,” she said.

Sprenger cited news reports of protesters in Portland associated with the group Antifa who engaged in violent behavior while wearing masks. The current penalty "doesn't seem to be much of a deterrant," she said.

The Oregon ACLU opposes the bill, saying it could chill the exercise of free speech. “We’re just worried about making sure we keep that balance between expression of our rights and public safety,” said ACLU lobbyist Courtney Helstein.

In written testimony, the ACLU said "Police can arbitrarily and without notice to the crowd classify a protest as a 'riot' based on isolated actions of a few protesters. Under this proposed law, peaceful protesters at such an event risk being charged with a serious felony based on the fact that they are wearing a mask—even a bandanna designed to protect against tear gas or a mask that parodies a public figure."

An attorney for the Oregon Department of Justice testified that the agency believes the measure would comply with the Oregon Constitution, since the only people who would be punished for wearing a mask would be those who were convicted of the crime of rioting.

"You're free to wear a mask for a lot of reasons: It's Halloween, you don't want to get coronavirus, you really like Batman. All of those are valid expressions of speech," said Aaron Knott, Legislative Director for the Oregon DOJ. 

"That can't change because you're engaging in a demonstration or excersing your political rights," said Knott. "The only time that the state can move that is if you're already committed a crime and your intent is criminal." 

It has the support of at least one Democrat on the panel. “Anytime you’re going to do something that you have to put a mask over their face, you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing," said Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, a retired police officer. "And I think this will be very helpful in keeping people who are going to riot held accountable.” 

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill, but has scheduled it for a possible vote on Wednesday.

Chris Lehman has been reporting on Oregon issues since 2006. He joined the KLCC news department in December 2018 and became News Director in March 2023. Chris was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and graduated from Temple University with a degree in journalism. His public broadcasting career includes stops in Louisiana and Illinois. Chris has filed for national programs including “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”