Free speech is proclaimed as a protected right in this country. However, given recent events I’m beginning to think that it’s actually conditional, more of a privilege than anything.
Last week, the Supreme Court protected the ability of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest military funerals. As much as I dislike what the church members have to say, I can understand why the court ruled in their favor. However, I’m disappointed by an action the court took today – refusing to hear the case of SHAC 7, a group of seven people convicted of terrorism for running an animal rights related web site.
The members of the SHAC 7 group took no illegal action themselves, but hosted content on a web site that talked about illegal activities others had taken (like releasing animals from labs). The Third Circuit Court had ruled that while they were not a threat and had not done anything illegal, they could be convicted because they supported illegal actions and by doing so might have incited people to participate. By associating with people who had taken part in illegal activities, the rights of the group were no longer protected.
As Will Potter from Green is the New Red said at the time-
“To put it more plainly: Vocally supporting civil disobedience, explaining what it involves, and encouraging/facilitating people to take part is not protected speech.
This is so important let me say it again, another way: People who write about civil disobedience and encourage people to take part can be found convicted of a crime even if they do not take part in the civil disobedience.
So the fact that the Supreme Court choose to let this ruling stand means that the Third Circuit’s decision is allowed to serve as precedent. Even if you don’t support causes like the ones the SHAC 7 were promoting, consider the danger that this presents to free speech. This has major implications for activists of all stripes.
Some might consider this proof that if your cause is unpopular enough, you will be silenced. And some are silenced in the most absolute sense of the word you can imagine. Domestic terrorists, including those convicted of “eco-terrorism”, are often held in something called Communications Management Units (CMUs), instead of traditional prisons. CMUs radically restrict prisoner access and communication to the outside world. They’re said to “rival, or exceed, the most restrictive facilities in the country, including the â€œSupermax,â€ ADX-Florence” where the Unabomber is held.
Prisoners in CMUs are virtually cut off from the outside world, kept in isolation. All prisoner communications and interactions are live-monitored and subject to recording. Letters are photocopied and the delivery is delayed. They’re only allowed two phone calls a week (recently increased from one) scheduled well in advance and up to 15 minutes long. That can be reduced to three minutes at the warden’s discretion. If their family members make the trek to see them in person (there are two CMUs in in the US), they can visit a maximum of two hours (where most inmates are allowed all-day visits), twice a month. They are not allowed physical contact. This is worse than even the most stringent rules for high-risk offenders– something many of these prisoners are not.
Last year the government acknowledged these secret prisons and proposed making them permanent. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU both filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the facilities, their policies on prisoner treatment, and violation of due process rights. This is in part based on the practice of transferring a prisoner into a CMU, or from one to the other, without prior notification and without a chance to appeal.
It’s a commonly held belief the reason the CMUs hold these types of prisoners are to shut them up. Removing their access to their family members, the media, and pretty much everyone means that their messages cannot get out. However, the isolation also has the capacity to destroy the prisoners psychologically and serve as a reminder to other activists of what could happen.
The fact that these political prisons even exist should serve as reminder that free speech rights don’t make a difference if you’re not otherwise free.