Selective Prosecution Against Dissenting Groups Would Set Devastating Precedent

“This is one more disturbing attempt by Bush administration officials so bent on stifling peaceful dissent that they’ll reach back more than a century to use a musty old law of the sea. I realize the right wing wants to turn back the clock to the nineteenth century on civil rights and social progress — I just didn’t think they’d use nineteenth century laws to accomplish that goal.

“Permitting the selective prosecution of a group like Greenpeace merely because the government disagrees with its point of view would set a devastating precedent. The rights of all Americans to speak freely would be endangered if certain viewpoints were singled out for prosecution or intimidation.

“Such selective prosecution — if it is demonstrated in this and other cases — would fit an unfortunate pattern of intimidating dissent and attacking those who disagree with the government’s viewpoint. It doesn’t take a constitutional scholar to know that the First Amendment is about protecting the right to disagree. Indeed, it is profoundly patriotic to engage in peaceful dissent when you think the government is wrong.

“Sadly, the intimidation of dissent has been a growing trend, from both the Bush administration and from their allies. In June last year, an Air Force officer with nearly a quarter century of experience in the military wrote a letter to the editor exercising his free speech rights to criticize the president’s policy on terrorism. He was suspended, under the military code of justice. Federal agents appeared at the door of a private art museum in Houston to investigate “Secret Wars,” an exhibit on artistic dissent to covert operations and government secrets. The agents interrogated the owner for an hour. A South Carolina activist was arrested for carrying a sign critical of President Bush at a presidential appearance at an airport.

“The chilling effect of selective prosecutions would be impossible to calculate. But the deafening silence of dissenting viewpoints too intimidated to speak up would surely leave our nation less vibrant, and less free.”

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