Guest Commentary

By Michael Avery
The Public Eye - Vol. 18, No. 1
Spring 2004

Under the Patriot Act, and administrative measures taken by President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft without consulting with Congress, threats to freedom of political association are severe. The danger is highlighted by two recent attempts to gather information concerning events sponsored by the National Lawyers Guild. In Des Moines, Iowa, a federal subpoena last February asked Drake University to produce records relating to a November 15, 2003 antiwar conference. The conference was sponsored by the law school chapter of the Guild and had been followed the next day by a demonstration at which 12 protestors were arrested on misdemeanor charges. The subpoena requested names of the leaders of the Drake Guild chapter, the chapter's annual reports and all records of University campus security reflecting any observations made of the conference, including persons in charge of the meeting, and any records of attendees.

In response to a public outcry and the Guild's motion to quash the subpoena, the government withdrew not only the subpoena for Guild records, but subpoenas to antiwar activists as well. What was no doubt intended as an attempt to chill antiwar speech suddenly became an object lesson in the value of resistance.

At the University of Texas Law School, the student Guild chapter sponsored a conference on February 4, 2004 entitled, "Islam and the Law: The Question of Sexism." Apparently based on the fact that Islamic issues were the subject matter, two military officers attended the conference in plain clothes. Five days later two military investiga- tors came to the university to interview conference organizers and request a list of attendees, which they did not receive. Again, there was substantial public concern. The Army has subsequently issued a written statement acknowledging that the agents and their detach- ment commander "exceeded their authority by requesting information about individuals who were not within the Army's counterintelligence investigative jurisdiction."

In these instances public awareness of its actions has led the government to back off. Nonetheless, the potential for further spying on campus activities, including covert oper- ations and secret infiltrations of political groups is high. Such snooping was author- ized in May 2002, when Atty. Gen. Ashcroft amended the Levi Guidelines which previously had restricted political intelligence investigations by the FBI, to eliminate the requirement that agents must have probable cause to believe that criminal activity is afoot before beginning such investigations.

Moreover, local police departments are once again in the political surveillance business. The Chicago Sun Times disclosed on February 19, 2004 that in 2002 local Chicago police sent undercover officers to meetings of Chicago Direct Action Network, the American Friends Service Committee, The Autonomous Zone, Not in Our Name, and Anarchist Black Cross. The police launched four other spying operations in 2003, but the target groups have not yet been identified. The spying was authorized after an earlier consent decree prohibiting such infiltration of domestic political groups was amended by the courts. Other local police departments, including in New York, have also sought and obtained modifications of consent decrees prohibiting police spying on political groups.

Such activities can be expected to increase as resistance grows to war and the government's violations of international law. Government spying on law-abiding citizens violates First Amendment rights to engage in organized political activity.

The only sensible response to government efforts to repress dissident speech is to increase the volume of protest. We cannot tolerate such government interference with basic democratic rights.

Michael Avery is the President of the National Lawyers Guild and a law professor at Suffolk University Law

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