SALEM, Ore. — On Monday an Oregon Senate panel rescinded the protective measure it had imposed on a state senator after he made threatening statements during an acrimonious 2019 legislative session, in a case that centers on free speech.
Since July 2019, Sen. Brian Boquist had been required to give 12 hours notice before coming to the Oregon State Capitol, to give the state police time to bolster their security and to ensure the safety of people in the Capitol.
Boquist, who was then a Republican and now belongs to the Independent Party of Oregon, maintained in a lawsuit that this measure violates his right to free speech as an elected official and that the imposed restriction amounted to retaliation for his fiery statements. In a ruling last April, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
Boquist suggested Monday that the Senate Conduct Committee, which met remotely, suspend the interim safety measure “until a judicial ruling is delivered by the federal courts on this matter.”
"But by all appearances, this committee has zero authority to act at all,” Boquist told the lawmakers.
The committee then voted 3-1 to rescind the protective measure.
The 2019 legislative session was one of the most rancorous in memory. The minority Republican lawmakers staged walkouts to prevent Democrats from reaching a quorum and prevented other lawmakers from passing any bills. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Senate President Peter Courtney, both Democrats, hinted at the possibility of using the Oregon State Police to compel the Republicans to return to the Capitol.
On June 19, 2019, Boquist stood on the Senate floor and told Courtney: “Mr. President, if you send the state police to get me, hell’s coming to visit you personally.” Later that day Boquist told a reporter that the state police should ”send bachelors and come heavily armed."
"I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple,” Boquist said.
The Democratic governor blasted Boquist’s behavior as “unbecoming of an elected official, and an embarrassment to the entire state of Oregon. I expect the Senate to hold him accountable.”
On July 8, 2019, the Senate Conduct Committee imposed the 12-hour rule on Boquist, citing his threatening statements.
“This is a very, very serious thing,” Sen. James Manning, who was then a committee member and one of only two Black members of the Senate, said during the hearing. “If I had made those comments, I would have been drug out of the Capitol, at minimum.”
Monday's meeting of the Senate's Conduct Committee lasted only 19 minutes, but the case isn't over.
Boquist has sued Courtney, Manning, committee co-chair Sen. Floyd Prozanski and several legislative officials, alleging that his free speech rights were violated. A federal judge in 2020 threw out the lawsuit, ruling that Boquist’s remarks amounted to threats.
The federal appeals court issued a 32-page opinion in April that said Boquist had a valid point, and sent the case back to the U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon.
“Boquist’s rhetorical response to the majority’s threat to use state police to arrest the departing senators and return them to the Capitol therefore fits easily within the wide latitude given to elected officials ‘to express their views,’” Appeals Court Judge Sandra Ikuta wrote.
Ikuta, an appointee of Republican President George W. Bush, said that the rule of 12-hour notice prevented Boquist from exercising authority he gained from getting voted into office. Boquist, who represents a district covering the Willamette Valley south of Portland, has consistently been reelected by wide margins over Democratic challengers.
Boquist told The Associated Press that despite the committee's reversal on Monday, he's still pursuing a lawsuit against Sen. Peter Courtney — the longest serving Senate president in Oregon history — and two other Democratic lawmakers.
He said he also is seeking an order from the Oregon Supreme Court that would prevent the state police or the state attorney general from enforcing legislative branch rules.
He was first elected to the Legislature in 2004. Boquist was with the Army Reserve for years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel with the special forces after an Iraq deployment, his campaign literature says.