Clampdown on Dissenters?

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

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.’

Related Links:

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?
Subscribe to Utne

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.