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Est. April 5, 2002
March 16, 2017 - Issue 690

The Criminalization of Dissent:
The U.S. Constitution?
Not That Important


"At this time, the move to curb free speech
is taking the form of legislation that makes
it illegal to demonstrate under some circumstances. 
According to the National Lawyers Guild (NLG),
Republican legislators in 19 states are attempting
to criminalize and penalize protests, including
increasing jail sentences and fines for obstructing
traffic, for tampering or trespassing on such
property as railroads and pipelines, or refusing
to leave an 'unlawful protest.'"

There are two things happening in the world of dissent and union organizing that all Americans should watch closely, starting with the imprisonment of union organizers in Turkey and the laws that have been adopted or are in the works in the various states in the U.S.

Turkey is not particularly known as a bastion of the kind of rights that U.S. citizens expect to enjoy under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but the act of union organizing in Turkey in 2007 has resulted in the impending imprisonment of 14 union organizers. The charges include: “…founding an organization for the purpose of committing crime, violating the right to peaceful work through coercion in order to obtain unfair pecuniary gain and obstructing enjoyment of union rights…”

In Ankara, organizing workers to raise their pay and gain other benefits apparently has become a crime that must be stopped. The organizers were captured in a sweep in raids in 2007 and sentenced to prison terms in 2012, all on the complaint of a corporation, according to The Turkish judiciary does not provide for a jury of peers. In fact, the judges make the decisions after hearing the cases. There is no provision for juries. Labourstart works in partnership with the International Transport Workers Federation, a global federation of 690 unions which represent more than 4.5 million workers in 153 countries.

Union organizers can be jailed in Turkey for doing what they are expected to do for their members. And, it can happen there for a variety of reasons, but can it happen in the U.S.? We tend to think that could not happen here, but it has been happening in the U.S. for many years, and it’s like the proverbial frog in the cold water: During the early stages, the frog doesn’t notice any discomfort, then some discomfort and, by the time the water boils, it’s too late.

The U.S. has a history of suppressing public displays of dissent, particularly when workers gather to demand their rights, but it has been done in such a way that the general public is not very aware of it. In recent years, especially during the Bush-Cheney years, demonstrations or rallies of any political nature have been restricted to free speech pens, which are areas designated for the demonstrators, restricted to a small area enclosed by chain link fences. Often, the pens are placed far from the object of the rally, so that, in effect, the voices of the protestors are impossible to be heard by the president, senator, corporate CEO, or other public figure, in effect negating the rights of the people under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Historically the lives of slaves, indentured servants, factory workers, farm workers, and many others have not been very highly valued. If their very lives have not been important to the powers that be (the rich, the corporations, and their minions), why should their voices be of any value? It is nothing to simply cut off those voices, and that is what is done, as much as possible.

Now though, with instant communications via the Internet, people are able to organize a rally or picket on very short notice and that presents a problem for those who would thwart exercise of free speech. But the power brokers are quick to counter action that tends to curb their control over economic and political policies and programs.

At this time, the move to curb free speech is taking the form of legislation that makes it illegal to demonstrate under some circumstances. According to the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), Republican legislators in 19 states are attempting to criminalize and penalize protests, including increasing jail sentences and fines for obstructing traffic, for tampering or trespassing on such property as railroads and pipelines, or refusing to leave an “unlawful protest.”

According to the NLG: “Particularly alarming are bills removing liability from drivers who ‘accidentally’ hit and kill protesters…Other legislation has proposed labeling protests as ‘economic terrorism.’” During the nationwide strike of Greyhound workers, there were some stations where the scabs were told to drive through the picket lines and, as a result, there were strikers hit by buses and one striker was killed.

Considering the wave of attempts to take away one of the most fundamental freedoms that Americans believe they enjoy, it will not be long before picketing one’s workplace that is being struck could become a criminal act. The attempt to criminalize picketing during a strike became a corporate success story, when it was (still is) possible to go to court and have the judge issue an injunction limiting the number of pickets and vastly diminishing the power of collective action by workers and their unions.

Much of the legislation being considered has more to do with government or corporate policy and programs, whether it’s opposition to the U.S. war machine, to injustices committed every day by paying half a living wage, marching for women’s rights and Black Lives Matter, or trying to stop the Keystone XL pipeline or the Dakota Access pipeline. Passing laws limiting protest will not stop the protests completely, but it gives authorities a tool to deal, often harshly, with participants.

One effort that has politicians scrambling to introduce legislation to squelch free speech is the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanction) movement against Israeli treatment of Palestinians and settlements in the West Bank. In this case, it isn’t so much punishment by fine or imprisonment, but a preemptive effort to stop BDS in its tracks, especially on college campuses. However, despite their best efforts, the BDS movement seems to be growing in the U.S., as well as in other countries.

Just last week, the New York State Senate had three bills introduced that would curb BDS free speech and the bills, if passed, will go to the Assembly for a vote. The first bill, S.2493, would deny funding to student groups at public universities that advocate for BDS in Israel or other American allied nations, according to the Washington-based Bill of Rights Defense Committee/Defending Dissent Foundation (BRDC). It should be noted that the bill broadens anti-BDS so as to give cover to the goal of stifling speech about Israel. The second bill, S.4837, would deny public universities from using state money to fund membership in, or travel and lodging for a meeting of, an academic association that boycotts Israel, while the third, S.2492, would create a blacklist to deny state contracts to and investment in individuals, organizations, and businesses that boycott “American allied nations.” According to the BRDC, “It’s sponsors have made it clear that supporters of Palestinian human rights are its targets.”

With Republicans in the majority in Congress, in possession of the White House and a majority of governorships and state legislatures, and with the GOP hand firmly on the gerrymandering of congressional districts, there’s no telling how far they will go to curb free speech and dissent.

It does not seem to be a question of when this will happen, but the question is how far the Republicans and their Right Wing forces will go before they take a page out of Turkey’s playbook, to both preempt and punish the use of the First Amendment to advance a cause or right a wrong, something that Americans have taken for granted. That right is being chipped away, day by day, and all sentient citizens need to be aware and act, before there is very little of the right of dissent left on which to stand. Otherwise, it is to be hoped that U.S. prisons are better than their Turkish counterparts. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




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David A. Love, JD
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