Clampdown on Dissenters?

| February 12, 2004

John Ashcroft's Justice Department is moving against two activist organizations -- the National Lawyers Guild and Greenpeace. Though Justice is claiming the investigations are of limited scope -- one focused on an act of trespassing, the other on an obscure bit of nautical law -- a press release and an article recently posted on claim that they exceed the government's authority and could have a chilling effect on legal, peaceful protest.

Take the case of the National Lawyers Guild -- a group of activists who 'provide legal support to progressive demonstrations.' Last November, the chapter of the group at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, sponsored an anti-war conference. The next day, a protest was staged at an Iowa National Guard base, where 12 protestors were arrested. Fast forward to last Wednesday, February 4, 2004, when the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force issued a subpoena requiring Drake University to surrender all records relating to the conference, including records of attendees.

While the government claims that the investigation is narrowly focused on a single act of trespassing at the Guard base, the Lawyers' Guild is up in arms over the scope and chilling effect of the subpoena. 'The law is clear that the use of the grand jury to investigate protected political activities or to intimidate protestors exceeds its authority,' said Guild President Michael Avery, as quoted in the press release. 'The government has no business investigating legal conferences held in academic institutions.'

Meanwhile, Greenpeace activists are anxiously awaiting a ruling by U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan on what journalist Judy Ettenhofer calls 'unprecedented criminal charges that could significantly diminish the group's ability to operate.' In April, 2002 a few Greenpeace activists boarded a cargo ship outside the Port of Miami to protest illegal logging. Not only were those activists arrested and fined, now Ashcroft is charging them for breaking an old federal law against 'sail-mongering' -- a law created in 1872 and unused for more than 100 years. Greenpeace attorneys have asked for the case to be dropped, but if it's not, the nonprofit's activities could be seriously curtailed.

'Never before has our government criminally prosecuted an entire organization for the free speech activities of its supporters,' says John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace in the United States, as quoted by Judy Ettenhofer. 'If this prosecution succeeds, then peaceful protest -- an essential American tradition from the Boston Tea Party through the modern civil rights movement -- may become yet another casualty of Attorney General Ashcroft's attack on civil liberties.'

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