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Est. April 5, 2002
March 01, 2018 - Issue 731

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Step by Step, the Noose is Tightening
On First Amendment Rights in U.S.


"The genesis of the anti-First Amendment legislation
was the bravery of the water protectors of the Standing
Rock Reservation and the thousands of their supporters
who came from all parts of the country.  The right-wing
politicians (most of the Republicans and some Democrats)
became alarmed that the people, defending what it theirs,
could bring to a (temporary) halt the grinding of industrial
America’s monstrous wheels and resolved to put a stop to it."

With an administration in Washington that is hell-bent on curbing any influence that the people might have on national policy, the powers that be are having some trouble carrying out their full program of oppressive actions.

What to do? Why, just allow the states to do their dirty business for them. For example, just recently, Wyoming became the third state to consider a bill that would criminalize protests against pipelines. The genesis of the anti-First Amendment legislation was the bravery of the water protectors of the Standing Rock Reservation and the thousands of their supporters who came from all parts of the country. The right-wing politicians (most of the Republicans and some Democrats) became alarmed that the people, defending what it theirs, could bring to a (temporary) halt the grinding of industrial America’s monstrous wheels and resolved to put a stop to it. The other two states that have criminalized protest and protection are Iowa and Ohio, with the former having already enacted a law against “impeding” the progress of gigantic oil, gas, and other mineral corporations.

State and the federal government have come up with a name for the citizenry who dare to challenge the power of corporations: “ecoterrorists.” By designating demonstrating citizens as terrorists, all bets are off. The world has seen what America has done to “terrorists” in other countries, where the people have tried to resist the plunder of their countries’ resources by the U.S. and other rich nations. Often in recent years, in many countries, the U.S. has taken out innocent people under the guise of killing terrorists. And it has been done in the tens of thousands. Think of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and many other places where the military and CIA have detected terrorists. Much of the killing done, whether by U.S. forces or American surrogates, is considered “collateral damage.” The elderly, the sick, and the children just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Wyoming legislation is taken from the model bill that was prepared by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the right-wing organization that is funded by billionaires and millionaires, who have been working to gain control over the electoral and legislative processes of the U.S. Funded by the likes of Charles Koch and David Koch of Koch Industries, one of the richest and most polluting corporations in the country, ALEC has spread their benefactors’ wealth around, hired researchers and PR people and sent their lobbyists with bags full of money to Congress, to state politicians and to more local levels of government.

ALEC’s financial largesse has paid off in places of power in many states, the proposed Wyoming law being just one example. There are many examples in other states, where corporations wish to nullify many of the regulations that protect citizens and their environment, just so they can keep piling up profits. Since they have a very good deregulating friend in the White House, they expect that they will continue to destroy protective regulations that have taken citizen groups decades to achieve. With the stroke of a pen (and lots of lobbying money), they will have their way with both the environment and the people.

According to DeSmogBlog, Wyoming’s protestor-terrorist law “makes ‘impeding critical infrastructure…a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than ten (10) years, a fine of not more than one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000), or both.’” Two GOP senators who sponsored the bill, Nathan Winters and Eli Bebout are ALEC members and helped it pass unanimously out of the Judiciary Committee and it is about to move to the full floor. If passed, as is, there are even some Republican lawmakers who are wary of such a draconian measure. It’s bad enough that there might be such heavy punishments in fines and imprisonment, but what will the result and the attitude of enforcers be on the line, when the police (or the military) are confronted by a crowd of “terrorists.” Rubber bullets and tear gas can kill, too, but the prospect of using live ammunition on demonstrators is always a possibility, especially when there is a law that can be used to say, “Those people are terrorists.”

What the authorities say is that the Standing Rock demonstrations involved violence, and some were armed with knives and guns. It’s easy to see how that argument can be so easily raised, given the habit of police and other law enforcement agencies of acting as provocative agents in groups that they wish to eliminate. One of the first that comes to mind is the Black Panthers. The test of the new law will be the first time a large group gathers to try to stop yet another pipeline or fracking field in an ecologically sensitive area. One of the banners that was held up by the Standing Rock protestors said, “Defend the Sacred.” Anyone can see that, in the eyes of the current administration, the Republican Party, and Corporate America, nothing is sacred.

In another expected attack on freedom of speech and freedom of association is the annual conference this week of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is meeting in Washington, D.C. The Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) describes AIPAC’s number one policy priority as “silencing you and me by jamming through the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would further criminalize boycotts, an essential tool for creating free and democratic societies, here in the U.S., and in Palestine/Israel.”

JVP describes the speaker list as a “Who’s Who of the American and Israeli far right,” featuring such officials as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. These are people who wield great power to curb the rights of people, both through influence and legislation and they are working on killing the BDS movement (Boycott, Divest, and Sanction) that is attempting to stop the gross human rights violations that occur as policy by Israel against the Palestinians.

Many lawmakers in the U.S. have wanted to pass a law that would criminalize participation or support of BDS by an individual or organization. The Intercept ( had this to say about such a law last summer:

The criminalization of political speech and activism against Israel has become one of the gravest threats to free speech in the West. In France, activists have been arrested and prosecuted for wearing T-shirts advocating a boycott of Israel. The U.K. has enacted a series of measures designed to outlaw such activism. In the U.S., governors compete with one another over who can implement the most extreme regulations to bar businesses from participating in any boycotts aimed even at Israeli settlements, which the world regards as illegal.

On U.S. campuses, punishment of pro-Palestinian students for expressing criticisms of Israel is so commonplace that the Center for Constitutional Rights refers to it as ‘the Palestine Exception’ to free speech.”

Politicians of every stripe are accepting such laws as routine business, disregarding the disruption to the lives of ordinary citizens to take a political stand, when such draconian punishments are meted out to people who have to work for a living and have little or no extra money to spend on lawyers and court costs or fines. One example of this is the sweep of the demonstrations in Washington during the inauguration of Donald Trump. Hundreds were detained and many of them charged, even if they never participated in violent or destructive behavior during the rallies. Many, if not most, of them were released, but many continued to be charged with serious crimes, including some reporters, and a year later, are awaiting trials. Even though, in a just world, they would be found innocent, their lives have been disrupted for a year.

That this is being carried out at all is an indication that both law enforcement and elected officials, including the Congress and the White House, hope that actions like this in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens will serve as a warning to the public at large that they should be very hesitant to express their First Amendment rights: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, Freedom to Associate, Freedom to Petition the Government for Redress of Grievances. And, perhaps most important of all, Freedom to Protest in the streets, since that is the only place they are able to confront politicians and officials who are responsible for their grievances. Those same officials and politicians are protected by layers of underlings and the security-heavy “hallowed halls” of the legislative buildings, federal, state, and local.

What’s in a name? Last summer a leaked FBI document surfaced and provided a new name for what they might see as persons to be watched (or more), “black identity extremist” (BIE), an FBI designation describing allegedly violent black civil liberty activism. It remains to be seen whether the appellation was designed specifically for the Black Lives Matter movement, but it looks a lot like that, such that the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives has said that the FBI’s designation is “ill advised.” In sum, it is another way to dampen or eliminate the BLM movement participants in their exercise of First Amendment rights.

Finally, since this is just skimming the surface of the trashing of American citizens’ constitutional rights, this week’s case before the Supreme Court, Janus v. AFSCME, is just the latest battle in Corporate America’s war on workers and their unions. The case involves a worker who does not want to pay his fair share to the union, although he benefits from the work that the union has done to bring him his pay, health care, paid vacations, paid sick leave, paid holidays, and so much more. He (through his lawyers and his rich corporate backers) has said that a requirement that he pay a “fair share” or equivalent of dues, even though he refuses to be a member, is a violation of his First Amendment rights.

Corporate types know that, if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Janus’s First Amendment rights are compromised by the collection of a fair share, it might open the flood gates of workers who also want to be free riders on the backs of those who pay dues. That’s why the rich, corporations, and right-wing politicians have relentlessly pursued their war against the workers, always claiming that they are just protecting them from the unions. Unions are the epitome of the people’s First Amendment right to associate and work for better pay, benefits, and pensions, as well as safer working conditions. That is what is at stake.

(Disclosure: I was a staffer for AFSCME International for many years.) 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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