Another Dumb Law Attacking Free Speech Rights – VA Bill HB 1601

Here is another example of an elected government official using the law to intimidate and silence people engaged in unpopular speech.  The law sounds good to some on the service but when you dig deeper you see how awful it really is.  You see, after the recent unpleasantness in Charlottesville, VA many people are asking why certain groups are not designated by our government as domestic terrorist organizations.  Sounds like a reasonable question until you really start to think about it.  To make matters worse the ACLU has been intimidated by the Left into backtracking on it’s principles regarding free speech.  But that is another story.  In this particular case we have a state representative in Virginia who has decided it’s time to go after hate groups.  Delegate Marcia Price is trying to hatch this little gem in the state legislature.  Here is the link to the bill.  The bill seeks to define domestic terrorism and establish penalties.  Here is a summary:

Creates a new series of separate and distinct felonies and misdemeanors based on prohibited domestic terrorism activity and participation in such domestic terrorism activity. The bill provides a definition for an “act of domestic terrorism” and a “domestic terrorism organization.” The bill directs the Superintendent of the Department of State Police to promulgate regulations, to be updated annually, designating all organizations, groups, or associations meeting the definition of a domestic terrorist organization.

Most of the legal language was lifted from hate crime statutes and is nothing really new.  Since I’m not a lawyer I’ll let you read the bill for yourself and get right to my point.  Let’s look at why this is a free speech disaster.  It does several things to thwart the Constitution when misapplied.  And it will be abused – you can count on that.

  1. § 18.2-46.13.  Prohibition on assembly of members of domestic terrorist organizations.   

It shall be unlawful for three or more members of a domestic terrorist organization to assemble together with the intent of advancing some unlawful goal, mission, or purpose of the domestic terrorist organization.  Every person who participates in such an unlawful assembly shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.  If any member of a domestic terrorist organization carried, at the time of his participation in the unlawful assembly, any firearm or other deadly or dangerous weapon, he shall be guilty of a Class 5 felony.

2.  § 18.2-46.14.  Prohibited domestic terrorist organization participation; penalty

(A) Any person who actively participates in or is a member of a domestic terrorist organization and who knowingly and willfully participates in any act of domestic terrorism committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with any domestic terrorist organization shall be guilty of a Class 5 felony.

3. § 18.2-46.15.  Prohibition on providing material support to a domestic terrorist organization.

(C) Whoever, by any means, directly or indirectly, unlawfully and willfully provides or collects funds with the intention that such funds are to be used, in full or in part, in order to carry out an act of domestic terrorism, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both.  For an act to constitute an offense under this subsection, it shall not be necessary that the funds were actually used to carry out a predicate act.

4. § 18.2-46.17.  Local law enforcement reporting of acts of domestic terrorism

This bill effectively shuts down any group unfortunate enough to get labeled as a terrorist organization.  But why is this a problem you may ask?  Don’t we hate terrorists?  Well, what exactly does it take to get you labeled a terrorist?  I won’t ever bother to argue the obvious, that this is an anti-Richard Spencer, anti-Alt Right bill.  So, let’s try and see what makes a terrorist in the eyes of Delegate Price.

Act of domestic terrorism” means (i) an act of violence, as defined in § 19.2-297.1 or (ii) any violation of §§ 18.2-5218.2-52.118.2-5318.2-53.118.2-56.118.2-5718.2-8318.2-108.118.2-11918.2-12118.2-12718.2-12818.2-13718.2-13818.2-14618.2-147,18.2-186.418.2-27918.2-28218.2-282.118.2-287.418.2-28918.2-30018.2-308.118.2-308.218.2-308.2:0118.2-31218.2-42318.2-423.0118.2-423.118.2-423.2, committed against a person or his property with the intent of instilling fear or intimidation in the individual against whom the act is perpetrated because of race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disability, or that is committed against such person for the purpose of restraining that person from exercising his rights under the Constitution or laws of this Commonwealth or of the United States.”  

Now how is the going to be enforced?  Let’s see..

Act of domestic terrorism” means (i) an act of violence.. committed against a person or his property with the intent of instilling fear or intimidation in the individual against whom the act is perpetrated because of race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disability or that is committed against such person for the purpose of restraining that person from exercising his rights under the Constitution or laws of this Commonwealth or of the United States.”  

Congratulations, you just locked up Antifa and anyone else whose rally turns into a brawl.   The language in this bill can be interpreted to apply to almost any group involved in violent clashes, even leftist groups.  Violence used to shut down Constitutionally protected rights, like speech, can land the protesters in hot water.  This would apply, in my opinion, to groups like Antifa.  The intent is to use C’ville as a reason to label people (on the right never the left) as violent terrorists.  However, any time two opposing groups get together violence has a potential to develop especially when the police stand by looking like they did in C’ville.  So, a group shows up to say provocative thing about race or religion (protected by the 1st Amendment) when they suddenly clash with counter protesters.  Violence flairs up and an innocent person is harmed or killed.  Now you have calls to make the offending group holding the rally (not those who may or may not have initiated the violence – it can be hard to tell who threw the first punch so to speak) a “terrorist” organization.  Anyone who gave money or support or  joined the group is now a felon or facing felony charges at least.  The group or even offshoots of the group will be unable to rally, organize, or raise money.  Americans could then be imprisoned for the groups they join or give money to even if they themselves have done nothing violent and committed no crimes.  The actions taken by others in your group can make you a criminal.  This law is unnecessary at the very least.  Current law works well in our free and open society.  It keeps groups like the Klan from openly organizing, funding, and carrying out violence.  They may inspire it, but it’s usually carried out by lone actors independent of any organized group.  The hate groups know that if they facilitate the violence they will be held criminally and civilly liable.  Attempts to punish groups for “inspiring” violence run into 1st Amendment problems.  If there is no direct call to violence only a vague insinuation open to interpretation then the law should be on the side of the speaker.

Bills like this are what authoritarians want to enact into law around the country to criminalize their opponents and silence the opposition.  I fully expect to see more bad law like this proposed in the coming years.  Let’s hope the Courts throw this nonsense out before we find ourselves living in a police state where freedom of association and speech exists on paper only and in reality can land you in prison.

EFF Starts the Electronic Frontier Alliance

The Electronic Frontier Foundation announced that they are launching the Electronic Frontier Alliance to bring together diverse groups of activists and organizations.  The idea is for the Alliance to be a central “hub” of information and activity in the fight for digital rights and civil liberties.  It is encouraging to see that they are reaching out to a broad range of ideologically diverse groups – from BLM to the Tea Party.  Any organization that champions free speech and digital rights must do so for all groups regardless of political affiliation.

“The Alliance will bring together groups pursuing a range of strategies and tactics—from hacker spaces crowdsourcing the open source development of software tools, to student groups hosting teach-ins and documentary screenings.”

To join the group an organization must affirm 5 fundamental principles:

  1. free expression: people should be able to speak their minds to whomever will listen.

  2. security: technology should be trustworthy and answer to its users.

  3. privacy: technology should allow private and anonymous speech, and allow users to set their own parameters about what to share with whom.

  4. creativity: technology should promote progress by allowing people to build on the ideas, creations, and inventions of others.

  5. access to knowledge: curiosity should be rewarded, not stifled

These principles are the bedrock of a free and open internet and society. Give the EFF whatever support you can.  They deserve it.