Dissent Is Patriotic
The Bill of Rights Defense Committee's e-mail newsletter
September 2008, Vol. 7, No. 8
In this issue:
- First Amendment Under Fire at Party Conventions
- People's Campaign for the Constitution News: "A Declaration for Our Times" Screened on Jumbotron at RNC; Organizations Continue to Join People's Campaign Coalition
- New Resources: The "War on Terror" and the Constitution 24-page booklet; Congress's Complicity flier; Questions for Candidates; Online Storefront; Coming soon: Human Rights Abuse Database
- In Brief: Sami Al-Arian Released; New FBI Guidelines to Allow Investigation without Suspicion if Mukasey Gets His Way
- BORDC News: BORDC's Director Submits Testimony for Senate Hearing on "Restoring the Rule of Law"
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Bill of Rights Defense Committee
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Northampton, MA 01060
Freedom of the press and freedom to speak, to assemble and to dissent have never been more critical than in this election year. In the wake of the Bush administration's continued flouting of basic constitutional rights, it is more important than ever that we review politicians' records and promises with the help of journalists willing to ask them tough questions, so that we can make informed choices about the next president and the composition of the next Congress.
At this year's major-party conventions, however, the First Amendment rights of protesters and journalists were repressed by thousands of unidentified police. The police actions are symptomatic of our times, when we the people are spied on and silenced while our government remains secretive and unaccountable.
Protesters and reporters seeking accountability from conveners of the recent Democratic and Republican national conventions met a range of obstacles including crackdowns on journalistic freedom, preemptive raids on the homes of protest organizers, violent repression in the streets, and brutal treatment of people in the jails.
Just before the Democratic National Convention began in Denver, AT&T threw a lavish party for delegates and Congress members who in June approved legal immunity for telecommunications companies that violated federal law by releasing customers' records to the government without receiving a warrant. Reporter Glenn Greenwald asked attendees about the event as they entered the building, but they remained mum. Eventually, private security guards pushed him so far from the entrance that his questions could no longer be heard, much less answered, by party guests. Greenwald commented, "Those who dictate the nation's laws (the largest corporations and their lobbyists) [were] cavorting in total secrecy with those who are elected to write those laws (members of Congress), while completely prohibiting the public from having any access to and knowledge of - let alone involvement in - what they are doing."
On the opening day of the Democratic Convention, police cordoned off and arrested roughly 100 peaceful protestors. Eyewitnesses reported that police gave protesters no opportunity to disperse and used pepper spray against peaceful protesters. Because the police were mostly unidentified, they acted without individual accountability to the public. Police also impeded protesters' access to public space.
A week later, police repression at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul was even more brutal. Armed with automatic weapons, police raided the homes of many people involved with the protests (See Glenn Greenwald's commentary on August 30 and 31). Between house raids and street sweeps, police arrested more than 800 protesters, bystanders, media, and medics at the RNC. According to the Coldsnap Legal Collective, of those charged with felonies, most were charged with the "notoriously vague charge, 'conspiracy to riot,'" which allows police to enter evidence of political intent, detain people for longer periods of time, and justify their own brutality against protesters. Coldsnap also reported injury and denial of medical attention to protesters while in custody.
President Bruce Nestor of the Minnesota Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild reports that eight members of the RNC Welcoming Committee have been charged with conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism, which "appears to be the first use of criminal charges under the 2002 Minnesota version of the Federal Patriot Act." The terrorism enhancement charge allows for a 50 percent increase in the maximum penalty, meaning the accused could face up to seven and a half years in prison, but Nestor emphasizes that no physical evidence corroborates the testimony of paid informants. The charges are quite serious in that the defendants are not being accused of their own actions in the streets, but rather for their role prior to the convention in facilitating and organizing protest activities. “By equating plans or stated plans to blockade traffic and to try to disrupt the convention with acts of terrorism," Nestor pointed out, "the conspiracy nature of the charge, where you punish people for what they say or advocate, but not for what they do, really creates a possibility that anybody organizing a large-scale demonstration, at which civil disobedience may be a part of it or where other individuals may then engage in some type of property damage, creates the potential that all those organizers can be charged with these conspiracy charges and face significant penalties.”
Independent media workers have also faced repression and harassment. Videographer group I-Witness Video, which has filmed previous political demonstrations and used that footage to exonerate hundreds of people, was targeted before the protests even began. Heavily armed police detained the group for hours at their temporary office, delaying the group's preparatory work by a day and heightening the climate of fear.
In another case, two Democracy Now! producers with press credentials and convention security clearances were arrested while covering a protest march. Immediately upon hearing the news, host Amy Goodman rushed to the scene. Once there, she questioned an officer about her arrested colleagues, only to be arrested on the spot herself. Although all three were released the same night due to immediate public outcry, two of the producers are still facing pending felony charges.
With such egregious First Amendment violations apparent at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, it is clear that the public must respond if we are to reclaim the promise of liberty and freedom that our nation and our Constitution have always stood for. It is the duty of both Congress and the president to uphold and defend the Bill of Rights, including the rights of the people to dissent and to assemble, and the right - and responsibility - of the press to document and report on all issues important to the public. This election year is a pivotal moment for our nation, and we must use this opportunity to organize in our local communities to hold each and every one of our representatives to their duties and oaths.
"A Declaration for Our Times" Screened on Jumbotron at RNC
True Blue Minnesota, a 527 non-profit corporation formed to counterbalance the Republican National Convention, erected an enormous 22- by 30-foot television billboard that screened videos criticizing Bush's policies on Iraq and constitutional rights. BORDC's "A Declaration for our Times" was shown on the Jumbotron once on each of the four days of the convention.
Although True Blue had initially won a permit to set up the massive electronic billboard, an infrequently convened committee, the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, voted 5-5 along partisan lines to deny a variance that was required for the permit. Minnesota Republican Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau cast the deciding vote against the variance, citing "safety concerns." Members of the Board's minority said the decision had more to do with political content than safety.
True Blue Minnesota's last minute legal action led Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin to reinstate the original permit, allowing uninterrupted broadcasting near the Xcel Energy Center, where the convention was taking place.
Two others who bid for billboard space during the convention - independent photographer Suzanne Opton, whose billboard depicted Iraq War Veterans, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, whose board called for an end to nuclear weapons - were denied by the media conglomerates that own the billboards: CBS and Clear Channel, respectively.
Organizations Continue to Join People's Campaign Coalition
Organizational partnerships are the fastest way to build the base of support for the People's Campaign for the Constitution. With their support, the campaign can work collectively to hold our representatives and candidates for public office accountable for ensuring our constitutional rights. The Center for Constitutional Rights is the most recent national organization to join the coalition.
Women For: Orange County of California is among the local, regional and statewide organizations that are campaign partners. The organization is collaborating with other Orange County organizations to put on a Candidate Night on September 24 at which candidates running for national, state, and local office will give short presentations and answer questions about their positions on key issues, including civil liberties.
Just in time for Constitution Day, September 17, BORDC has released the following new resources for anyone interested in protecting and defending the Constitution.
- The "War on Terror" and the Constitution is an update to the booklet we produced several years ago on similar issues called A Guide to the USA PATRIOT Act and Federal Executive Orders. This new booklet is available in PDF form on our website. It is also available for purchase as a 24-page printed and bound booklet with a full color cover for just $3 per copy (bulk discounts available). Visit our new online storefront (see below) to order copies for yourself and your group.
- Congress's Complicity is our new flier for the People's Campaign for the Constitution. It details how Congress has joined with the administration to tear down our most basic rights. Download and print the flier and distribute it in your community.
- Questions for Candidates is a four-page library of questions you or your coalition can ask candidates at forums, town hall meetings and other public events. You can also submit them to the candidates in questionnaires and publish the results. The candidate questions in PDF form are available for download on our website.
- Our new online storefront is now available as well! Visit the storefront to order copies of The "War on Terror" and the Constitution as well as buttons, bumper stickers, bookmarks, and DVDs. The site provides secure online purchasing.
The Human Rights Abuse Database (HRAD), a searchable online collection of human rights violations in the U.S., is almost ready for launch. BORDC is partnering with other organizations to collect, research, and verify stories of post-9/11 violations, making HRAD an excellent, up-to-date resource for journalists, students, and other concerned individuals. We'll send out an alert as soon as HRAD is made public.
Sami Al-Arian Released
On September 2, political prisoner Sami Al-Arian was released from jail on bond, reuniting him with his family for the first time after a grueling and Kafkaesque imprisonment that lasted five and a half years. In 2006, a Florida jury acquitted Dr. Al-Arian of all terrorism charges that the government had initially pressed. Nonetheless, the government has continued to detain him on a contrived criminal contempt charge for his refusal to testify in an unrelated case. After his prison term ran out in April 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) intervened to further prolong his incarceration.
According to Dr. Al-Arian's daughter, Laila Al-Arian, her father was not released until his lawyers filed a habeas corpus petition to which government prosecutors, who had exhausted all possible justifications for his continued detention, finally made no further response. Federal Judge Leonie Brinkema then ordered that Dr. Al-Arian be released into his daughter's custody. Three weeks before Dr. Al-Arian's release, on August 8, Judge Brinkema postponed Al-Arian's trial, awaiting the Supreme Court's review of the appeal his attorneys submitted on the lawfulness of the federal subpoena that led to the contempt charges. Dr. Al-Arian, who is now hoping to be deported to Egypt, remains under house arrest at his daughter's home in Virginia in anticipation of a Supreme Court ruling that could still be several months away.
New FBI Guidelines to Allow Investigation without Suspicion if Mukasey Gets His Way
Late last month, Attorney General Michael Mukasey agreed to delay the implementation of new investigation guidelines for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), the committee's ranking member, wrote a letter requesting the delay, citing "potential implications for civil liberties." Democratic Senators Russ Feingold (WI), Dick Durban (IL), and Ted Kennedy (MA) authored a similar letter following a closed briefing on the guidelines, which the senators say would allow the FBI to conduct surveillance "without any basis for suspicion" and "might permit an innocent American to be subjected to such intrusive surveillance based in part on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or on protected First Amendment activities."
BORDC was one of nearly 40 organizations that signed an August 12 letter to the Attorney General (PDF) protesting the guidelines. Muslim Advocates led the effort.
Mukasey agreed to hold off on implementing the guidelines until after FBI Director Robert Mueller appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee this month. However, the delay is only temporary. While Mukasey has said the government would still need a "valid reason" to conduct an investigation and that race or ethnicity alone would not be enough to start an investigation, the guidelines, which have not yet been released to the public, leave the door open for investigations based on racial profiling combined with group memberships, protected free speech activities, or other traits that do not, in and of themselves, create suspicion of terrorism. Further, other statements by Mukasey - for example, claims that the guidelines will "integrate more completely and harmonize the standards that apply to the FBI's activities" and "[clarify] the rules by which the F.B.I. conducts its intelligence mission" - seem to imply that the FBI may already be functioning under these guidelines.
With our nation's recent history colored by too many racial injustices and ethnicity-based human rights violations - the round-up of Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian men after the 9/11 attacks, for example - we simply cannot allow the government to sanction terrorism investigations based on race, ethnicity, or practice of free speech rather than on real suspicion.
BORDC's Director Submits Testimony for Senate Hearing on "Restoring the Rule of Law"
On Tuesday, September 16, at 10:15 a.m., the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights will hold a hearing on "Restoring the Rule of Law." The committee, chaired by Senator Russ Feingold, will be seeking input on the steps the next president and the next Congress should take to restore the rule of law, especially in the national security arena.
Nancy Talanian, BORDC's director, is among the law professors, historians, advocates, and other experts who were invited to submit written testimony for the hearing record. Talanian's testimony highlights the strong grassroots response to the government's abuses of civil liberties and human rights and briefly analyzes several key laws and policies that the next president and the 111th Congress must amend or repeal in order to restore human rights and civil liberties.
Editor: Nancy Talanian, Director
Managing Editor: Barbara Haugen, Administrator
Ben Grosscup, Campaign Coordinator
Amy Ferrer, Web and Publications Coordinator
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
8 Bridge St., Suite A
Northampton, MA 01060