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Politics and Government

Where’s the line between political speech and credible threats? A Colorado bill is asking the question.

A bipartisan measure to make it a felony to threaten or harass an elected official is running into stiff resistance at the Capitol

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Kyle Mullica opens his email and finds one he received last year after introducing a bill at the state Capitol.

The expletive-laden missive ends with this message: “The world would be better if your home burned down with you and your family in it.”

The first-term state representative scrolls to find another message. This one declares Mullica engaged in treason and “the punishment shall consist of death by hanging, dismemberment and spread to the four winds.”

To Mullica, the threats raise a question that Colorado lawmakers must answer: What is the line between political speech and criminal threats in today’s hyper-polarized atmosphere?

The threats — and others that came in response to a 2019 bill on childhood vaccinations — made Mullica’s family fearful for their lives and led law enforcement to post an officer outside his home for a week.

“When threats or violence starts really dictating the policy that we pass, or affecting the policy that we want to run, I think that it becomes very dangerous,” the Northglenn Democrat said. “And I don’t think it’s a path we want to go down.”

State Rep. Kyle Mullica is sponsoring a bill enhancing the penalties for threats against elected officials. He is seen here on the House floor Jan. 8, 2020. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

With a Republican colleague, Mullica sponsored legislation that would make it a class-four felony to retaliate against an elected official or their family with a credible threat or harassment. 

The charge carries a potential sentence of two to six years in prison and would put elected officials in the same category as judges with enhanced criminal penalties. Federal law grants similar protections against threats to members of Congress.

“I think society needs to remind citizens that we are their elected officials, and if we can be intimidated not to make the tough decisions, then we become a society run by bullies and thugs,” said Rep. Matt Soper, a Republican from Delta and the other bill sponsor.

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The threats rise amid polarized political debate

The debate in Colorado comes as threats against elected officials at the local and national level continue to increase, often amplified online. The security presence surrounding Gov. Jared Polis also is heightened compared with his predecessor.

“At all levels of government, there is an increased frequency of threats, and typically those threats are done through electronic communications, via emails to the office holders or social media,” said Reid Meloy, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego.

Meloy, a leading expert on threat assessments, is careful to note that threats vastly outnumber attacks, but he said those directed toward public officials are usually issue-related. This differs from those aimed at celebrities, which generally are related to a romantic interest or obsession.

The typical scenario is an attacker who suffers personally from a decision made by an elected official, he said. “When you peel back the surface, in most of these cases, you will see a personal grievance drive the attack.”

The polarized political arena and ease of access to the internet are two factors that experts believe are contributing to the current climate. 

The internet allows people to communicate differently than they would face-to-face, and research into online disinhibition shows people often don’t consider the interaction human because they communicate through a computer.

“All these cues we use to treat people in humane ways are in many ways absent when we engage people online,” said Brian Keegan, a computational social scientist who studies online behavior at the University of Colorado. “It can lead to more polarization and extreme behavior online.”

This is evident in the latest research from Louisiana State University’s Nathan Kalmoe. The surveys he conducted with colleagues found that a small minority of Americans even have positive views of threats and violence toward public officials. The results led Kalmoe to suggest “very high levels of animosity among many partisan activists and it probably creates an environment that encourages more threats against political officials.”

“The language of politicians and pundits is more hostile than it has been in living memory, including some who openly discuss and even cheer for political violence,” Kalmoe said in an interview. “The levels of vitriol have real consequences for public attitudes, and they also push people toward aggressive acts.”

Colorado familiar with threats against elected officials

The discussion is not new to Colorado. In 2007, an armed man was shot and killed outside then-Gov. Bill Ritter’s office, a move that led to the installation of metal detectors at the state Capitol.

In 2013, a death threat against Sen. Rhonda Fields, who then served as a representative, came after she sponsored a measure to impose tougher regulations on guns. And similar threats were aimed at the bipartisan lawmakers who sponsored a red flag law in 2018.

Mullica experienced threats after he proposed legislation to eliminate the personal-belief exemption from childhood vaccinations and make the process harder for parents to opt out.

“I don’t think you should be trying to influence policy through threats of bodily harm,” Mullica said in an interview this week. “Say that you aren’t going to vote for me, that’s fine. But sending me a message that you want to burn down my house with my kids in it — with the hope of getting me to drop the bill — that’s just not how the system is set up.”

At the federal level, a threat to kidnap or kill a member of Congress can lead to charges that carry up to 10 years in prison. A threat to assault a federal lawmaker is punishable by up to six years in prison.

A series of federal court decisions limits prosecution to those that represent a “true threat,” which is defined as serious intent to commit an unlawful act of violence. Political hyperbole does not meet the standard.

The Colorado bill sponsors say their measure is not intended to stifle free speech.

“We want to have those difficult conversations and we want to have those passionate debates,” Mullica said. “But we have to draw a line that you can’t threaten people, you can’t threaten their families, you can’t attack an elected official to try to get your way.”

The bill’s critics fear the messages it sends

Still, the legislation is facing significant bipartisan opposition from lawmakers and criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, said the threats he sees wouldn’t meet the standard as credible. He also said he is concerned about the broader message it would send. “I think the public sees it as somehow a special privilege or something, and I think we need to guard against that.”

House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, talks to reporters about the introduction of the red flag gun bill on Feb. 14, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, received threats when he sponsored gun legislation the past two sessions. And in 2018, he wore a bulletproof vest under his suit for weeks as the chamber debated whether to expel a fellow member.

But he doesn’t think lawmakers should be treated any differently in the law, and suggested it’s part of the process when you “step up to run for public office.”

“From the people who have threatened me, I don’t think changing the state statute is going to deter their behavior,” Garnett said.

The bill sponsors considered amendments to address the concerns of critics, but decided to drop the effort altogether when it came before a House committee for its first hearing. It was postponed indefinitely. 

Mullica said he hopes to renew the effort next session and worries about the message it sends if threats and harassment become part of the job when you run for elected office. 

“I disagree that harassment or intimidation or threats of violence are necessarily part of this job,” Mullica said. 

“It may be a sign of where we are at — but it’s not a sign of where we need to stay,” he added.” I think we need to be better.”

Updated at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 31, 2020: This story was updated to include the result of its first committee hearing.

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