Making free speech a crime

October 6, 2010

The federal government is using a time-honored tactic--smear radicals who support struggles of the oppressed as backers of violence and terrorism.

BACK IN June, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its 6-3 decision in the case of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, called the ruling a "license to witch-hunt."

Little did we know how correct that label would be.

Today, 14 antiwar and socialist activists from Minneapolis and Chicago are facing possible grand jury indictments as a direct consequence of the Supreme Court decision--after their homes and offices were raided last month by the FBI, using warrants alleging possible "material support" of terrorist groups.

The activists targeted are involved in numerous political groups, including the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO) and solidarity work relating to struggles in Colombia and Palestine. The Feds' investigation centers on whether they gave unspecified material support to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Lebanese Islamic group Hezbollah--all groups on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Protesting the FBI's raids of activists' homes in Minneapolis and Chicago
Protesting the FBI's raids of activists' homes in Minneapolis and Chicago

Thus, the fallout of the Supreme Court ruling on our free speech rights is already evident--and the expectations of millions of people that the Obama administration would roll back the worst excesses of the Bush administration's attack on our civil liberties have been dashed.

The FBI raids and legal harassment are the latest chapter in the U.S. government's long and sordid history of attempting to squelch dissent and intimidate radicals. They are not about targeting a few activists, but are aimed at the whole of the left. No one can remain silent about this assault on all our rights.

THE DECISION in the Supreme Court case last June upheld a part of the USA PATRIOT Act that criminalizes some speech and other "intangible assistance" as material aid to terrorists.

The ruling was a victory for the Obama administration, which opposed a lawsuit brought by the Humanitarian Law Project that challenged the law's provision prohibiting material support--specifically, the giving of "expert advice or assistance"--to groups designated as "terrorist" by the U.S. State Department.

The Law Project wanted to provide advice to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Kurdistan Workers' Party on peacefully resolving disputes and working with the United Nations.

In his opinion justifying the decision, Chief Justice John Roberts said the motives of the Law Project didn't matter, and that any assistance to a group on the State Department's terrorism list represented "material support"--because, even if the assistance was humanitarian training, it would free up resources for other, illegal operations.

At the time, the New York Times pointed out the broad scope of the law, and the frightening implications for activists, academics and even journalists:

The court at least clarified that acts had to be coordinated with terror groups to be illegal, but many forms of assistance may still be a criminal act, including filing a brief against the government in a terror-group lawsuit.

Academic researchers doing field work in conflict zones could be arrested for meeting with terror groups and discussing their research, as could journalists who write about the activities and motivations of these groups, or the journalists' sources. The FBI has questioned people it suspected as being sources for a New York Times article about terrorism, and threatened to arrest them for providing material support.

As former President Jimmy Carter told the Washington Post at the time, the law "threatens our work and the work of many other peacemaking organizations that must interact directly with groups that have engaged in violence...[T]he vague language of the law leaves us wondering if we will be prosecuted for our work to promote peace and freedom."

When the ruling was handed down, Justice Stephen Breyer took the unusual step of reading his dissenting opinion from the bench--something generally reserved for critically important decisions.

Breyer argued that the logic of the decision amounts to "a rule of law that, contrary to the Constitution's text and First Amendment precedent, would automatically forbid the teaching of any subject in a case where national security interests conflict with the First Amendment."

The Obama administration is every bit as responsible for the decision as the justices. Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder were supposed to represent a turn away from worst excesses of the Bush administration's attack on civil liberties. In reality, the administration's position in support of the material witness law was argued in front of the Supreme Court by then-Solicitor General Elena Kagan--who, today, is a sitting Supreme Court justice, nominated by Obama.

The administration has left a long trail of broken promises on civil liberties issues. Not only is the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay not closed, but the Obama White House has pushed forward with military tribunals--something Obama spoke out against as a candidate. And none of the Bush-era torturers of prisoners of the "war on terror" have ever been brought to justice.

More recently, the Obama administration invoked "state secrets" in an attempt to shut down a court challenge by the father of Anwar Awlaki--a U.S. citizen that is reportedly on a list of those who have been cleared for assassination by the White House. Awlaki has never been convicted or even put on trial, yet the Obama administration is not only trying to kill him, but claiming it has the right to do.

The administration is also currently seeking sweeping new laws that would allow them unfettered access to Internet communications.

Yet in a recent interview in Rolling Stone magazine, Obama had the nerve to chastise any Democratic voter who might be less than enthusiastic about the upcoming mid-term elections. "If we want the kind of country that respects civil rights and civil liberties," Obama said, "we'd better fight in this election."

THE "MATERIAL witness" portion of the Patriot Act has been used politically from the start.

Federal prosecutors under both the Bush and Obama administrations amassed a list of approximately 150 individuals and organizations put on trial under the law. The primary targets were Islamic charities--often convicted on the thin premise that money for humanitarian supplies nevertheless constituted "material support" for terrorism.

Other targets of the Patriot Act included political activists like former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, whose case is still dragging on seven years after he was first arrested--and defense lawyer Lynne Stewart, recently re-sentenced to a lengthy term in prison for no more than having issued a press release for her client.

Now, the Obama administration is signaling an increased willingness to attack more such activists--especially those involved in the struggle for Palestinian rights, and particularly in the wake of Israel's attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, which sparked international outrage.

So it was no surprise that one of the strongest voices in support of the Supreme Court's June ruling was the staunchly pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League, which called the decision "right on target."

The government's use of the "material support" law has followed a clear trajectory since the September 11 attacks. The first to be prosecuted were Muslim and Arab charities and individuals who, in the wake of 9/11, could be easily vilified.

Now, with the raids on antiwar and socialist activists, the Obama administration is widening the scope of the attack. It is going after left-wing activists who are engaged in solidarity struggles with those fighting the governments of Colombia and Israel--both allies of the U.S.

This is a time-honored tactic of the U.S. government--to smear radicals who support the struggles of the oppressed as backers of "terrorism." The Feds' ugly record runs from the Palmer raids and the laws against "sedition" aimed at victimizing anarchists, socialists and communists during and after the First World War; to the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the Cold War era; to the FBI's COINTELPRO program of surveillance and dirty tricks against left-wing organizations, and civil rights and Black power activists.

But it is possible to fight back against this kind of state repression. Hundreds of people turned out for rallies and emergency meetings in Chicago, Minneapolis and elsewhere in the days following the raids--because they recognize the attack on FRSO members and other activists puts all our rights in jeopardy. This is an important first step in building a resistance.

During the 1950s and '60s, the federal government used all kinds of dirty tricks, surveillance and intimidation against civil rights activists. Our side should never forget that no amount of state repression could stop the rising tide of a civil rights movement that finally broke the back of Jim Crow apartheid in the U.S. South.

Today, the socialist and antiwar activists being investigated for "material support" have announced that they will refuse to testify in front of a grand jury--a move that is likely to provoke an even more aggressive response from the government. We can't allow the state to isolate these committed opponents of oppression and injustice.

Instead, we should remember the words of Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs. In a famous speech delivered in Canton, Ohio, during the First World War--a speech for which he was later thrown in jail--Debs spoke out against the jailing of socialists on charges of "sedition":

I have just returned from a visit over yonder, where three of our most loyal comrades are paying the penalty for their devotion to the cause of the working class. They have come to realize, as many of us have, that it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.

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