Is free speech worth the constitutional paper it’s written on?
After the September 26 FBI raids on peace activists’ homes in Minneapolis, Chicago, and North Carolina, it appears to depend on who’s speaking and what they’re saying.
The pretext for the raids was investigating “material aide to terrorists”, resulting in grand jury subpoenas and confiscation of computers, books, music CD s and from one home, a Martin Luther King poster. The targeted Minneapolis activists have openly protested US military policy since the 1980s. The FBI certainly knows they have nothing to do with terrorism. These activists simply have the audacity to challenge bi-partisan US invasions, occupations and support for dictatorships and human rights abusers. Dissent on the left has long been seen as ‘criminal behavior’. Where once “the communist threat’ was the argument for such repression, now, “terrorism” is.
When it comes to war, US government sees three roles for the American people:
- Pay hundreds of billions for the largest military on Earth
- Kill and possibly die or be maimed for US military and corporate dominance of other countries
- Cheerlead war.
The US government---bought and paid for by weapons-makers and mercenaries (‘contractors’) ---does not think that We The People have the right to even question, much less challenge and resist permanent war, which is bankrupting our country and civilian deaths ignites violent reaction.
Just days before the raids, the Department of Justice Inspector General released a report about FBI abuses of peace groups under the Bush Administration----abuses that President Obama continues. Republicans and Democrats rubberstamp domestic spying on peace organizations, Quakers, solidarity groups visiting countries that the US bombs or subsidizes death squads in.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled 5-to-4 in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Center that peace groups who talked about non-violent, democratic practices and international human rights law---that is,alternatives to terrorism---with organizations on the State Department’s “Terrorist Watch List” may be charged with ‘material aid to terrorists’. If ending terrorism is actually the goal, then, why make working to end violence a crime? In his dissent, SCOTUS Justice Stephen Breyer warned that political speech---the most protected speech under the First Amendment---was being criminalized.
President Bill Clinton’s 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act made “material aid“ a crime, expanded under George W. Bush’s PATRIOT Act and broadening to Orwellian vagueness under the President Obama. Campaign promises to close Guantanamo yet, the Obama Administration is defending Bush-era torture and imprisonment without charges, trial or conviction in court. Obama claims further powers: to assassinate anyone labeled a “terrorist’ overseas----including American citizens.
Billions of dollars have simply disappeared in Iraq and Afghanistan . Contractors like KBR/Halliburton reap billions for work not done and services not provided. The US government bribes Taliban, warlords and “insurgents” with over $2B.
Dissidents educate the American public about these policies as much as they protest them.
As the FBI raided American dissidents’ homes, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced economic sanctions against Iran for human rights abuses, including “suppression of dissent”. What hypocrisy!
Since WWI, the FBI has targeted peace activists, most infamously labor leader Eugene Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison for an anti-war speech. The FBI’s COINTEL program subjected the civil rights movement to domestic spying while the Klux Klux Klan burned churches and homes, beat and murdered with near-total impunity. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and other leaders of color had thick FBI files. The Black Panther Party, American Indian Movement and Puerto Rican Independence movement were subjected to FBI assaults, murders and frame-ups. Congress’ 1978 Church Committee investigated these abuses and ended them until 9/11 loosened all rules.
Almost always it is progressive/Leftist non-violent groups and activists that the FBI spies on, harasses and tries to jail.
Anti-choice groups post hit lists of doctors with their addresses, commit arson on and mail anthrax-like powder to clinics -- without being investigated. White supremacists and militias threaten and commit violence against people of color, Muslims and progressives. Violent rhetoric infuses many right-wing groups---with no grand jury subpoenas. Support racism, corporate rule and war -- that is, rightwing ideology -- even with a call for violence, is protected speech.
The Supreme Court will hear the case of homophobic preacher, Fred Phelps, who protests military funerals. Likely Phelps will win, as “unpopular speech“ -- especially if its bigotry-- gets protection.. This is the same court that made talking about international human rights law a crime.
Bigots are held up as ‘victims’ who’s First Amendment rights are threatened, yet, hatred has no problem being heard. No one is harassed for suggesting that the US nuke other countries who have not attacked us. Instead, the government targets those who uphold values of equal justice under the law, human rights, democracy and peace .
Nine years after the September 11 attacks, the US government has done more damage to fundamental American freedoms than Al-Qaeda ever did. With progressive dissent, censored from corporate media, increasingly treated like a crime, it’s time to ask: what is being protected?
Lydia Howell is an independent journalist in Minneapolis, winner of the 2007 Premack Aard for Public Interest Journalism, and producer/host of "Catalyst:politics & culture" on KFAI Radio.