The Policing of Political Speech: Constraints on Mass Dissent in the U.S.



To know that the United States is undergoing a highly orchestrated curtailment of personal and political liberties, one need not look further than police treatment of protesters in the streets.  Those who speak out against government policies increasingly face many of the same types of weaponry used by the U.S. government in its military operations.

Demonstrations at National Special Security Events1 and other mass assemblies of the last decade have met with widespread police actions — many of them in violation of the law — aimed at stopping dissent in its tracks.  Offensive, rather than defensive, measures such as use of less-lethal munitions on passive crowds, pre-event raids of homes and meeting spaces of organizers, confiscation of journalists’ cameras, video equipment and recorded images, unlawful containment of crowds and mass arrests without probable cause typify modern policing of protesters.  Such aggressive actions violate fundamental free speech rights and undermine the concept of a democratic society.

Police preparation for mass assemblies routinely involves infiltration and spying on activist groups, sometimes years in advance, including the use of agents provocateurs.  Time and time again, millions of dollars have been obtained by police departments for personnel and equipment at large events justified by confidential informant testimony that large numbers of “anarchists” are planning to attend and engage in violence.  Closer examination of the facts often reveals the falsity of such allegations: numerous police informants, many with criminal backgrounds, admit when later questioned that activist groups they infiltrated never planned any violent activities.  Indeed, millions more have been spent paying damages to the demonstrators victimized by these tactics.

New anti-terrorism legislation and prosecution practices have resulted in individuals being charged with conspiracy to riot merely by virtue of having helped organize a protest at which other individuals unknown to them were arrested.  As evidence of conspiracy to riot, the government cites such First Amendment protected activities as attending meetings, writing about protests, organizing protests, and engaging in rhetorical or politically charged speech.

Faulty intelligence gathering and grossly attenuated criminal charges are accompanied by additional strategies to quell dissent.  Asserting the need to defend against terrorism and protect national security, the government targets leaders of social and political movements, employs grand juries to search for evidence of political affiliation, stigmatizes groups of activists, and uses the mass media to denigrate demonstrators, reinforce negative stereotypes or publicize high-profile arrests on charges which are frequently later dropped for lack of evidence.

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1  Events like the G-20 Summit and the national political conventions are designated National Special Security Events (NSSE) by law enforcement.  President Bill Clinton established NSSE procedures in his 1998 Presidential Decision Directive 62, which outlined the security roles for federal agencies at large events.  In 2000, such special events were placed under the purview of the United States Secret Service in the Presidential Threat Protection Act of 2000.

This report was issued by the National Lawyers Guild on 24 September 2010.

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