Working Washington’s call for criminal prosecution of Amazon goes beyond calling the company’s bluff or calling the company a bully. By such logic, citizens and other dissenters could be accused of felonies as well.
Ignoring a blatant cry for attention is sometimes wise.
But when a group’s publicity stunt effectively equates opposition to a policy proposal with a felony crime, it veers into more sinister territory.
The labor-backed group Working Washington urges the state’s attorney general to prosecute Amazon for “intimidating a public servant,” a class B felony. Working Washington, which has long demonstrated a flair for the dramatic, says Amazon’s move to halt construction on an office tower and sublease another building amounts to not just a hardball tactic, but a form of felony intimidation designed to push the Seattle City Council to reject a controversial “head tax” on employee hours.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson initially declined to comment on the matter, as did the office of King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, the agency with the actual power to initiate such a prosecution.
But on Friday, Ferguson took an unusual step by asserting the obvious: that there would be no legal basis to prosecute Amazon based on the facts provided.
Ferguson was right to call out Working Washington for making outrageous claims that aren’t supported by the law. While doing so, however, he failed to address the deeper problem with the group’s underhanded tactic: the potential to stifle public debate.
Working Washington’s call for criminal prosecution goes beyond calling Amazon’s bluff, or accusing the company of being a bully (which the group has also done). By the organization’s tortured logic, a small-business owner who testifies that a policy proposal will force them to close their doors or relocate could potentially be accused of felony intimidation, since shuttering their business would deprive the city of tax revenue.
Similarly, citizens urging the rejection of a school levy could be accused of intimidating a public servant, since their actions, if successful, would lead to a school district not collecting property taxes in the future. The same could be said of customers who organize a boycott on sugar-filled drinks, depriving the city of expected revenue from a tax on soda.
Also potential felons, under Working Washington’s reasoning? Voters who vow to turn a mayor out of office if he or she doesn’t veto a proposed tax, said Hugh Spitzer, an acting professor of law at the University of Washington.
After all, those voters would be threatening the mayor’s precious taxpayer-funded salary. This type of threat creates an unsettling precedent in our public discourse: That those who disagree with pending legislation may be accused of criminal acts if they issue dire warnings about a plan’s effects.
To his credit, Ferguson eventually set the record straight by calling out Working Washington’s legally dubious charade. He could have gone further, though, by elaborating on exactly why their request is so odious in a democratic society.
Lobbing criminal accusations in policy debates is a tactic that could easily be misused to suppress free speech and impede the political process down the road.