Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Anti-activist bill backed by Collins, Allen, and Michaud

Published in the Portland Phoenix

US Senator Susan Collins and both of Maine’s US representatives are backing legislation that could result in more incidents like the November 2 run-in between police and eco-activists in Greenville.

Environmental and civil-liberties advocates fear that the “Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007,” which has already passed the US House, would make such intimidation by police more common — and more legal.

The bill creates a commission to study ways the government can prevent “the use, planned use, or threatened use, of force or violence” by anyone, including American citizens, “in furtherance of political or social objectives,” or “to promote . . . political, religious, or social beliefs.”

US Senator Susan Collins, who is seeking re-election next year, is the bill’s lead Senate sponsor. Her chief challenger for re-election, 1st District Democratic representative Tom Allen, voted with the 404-member House majority in favor of the legislation on October 23. So did 2nd District Democrat Mike Michaud. (Six members of Congress were opposed, and 22 abstained.)

All three Maine lawmakers — through their spokespeople — say they support protestors’ First Amendment rights and reject any suggestion this bill could result in intimidation of peaceful protestors, but activists fear increased bullying all the same.

“It’s inappropriate for the government to determine what is or is not an extremist belief system,” says Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. “This bill goes too far in attempting to limit freedom of thought and expression.”

“Any folks who have a dissenting opinion could be endangered,” says Emily Posner, one of three Native Forest Network volunteers cited November 2 for trespassing on the parking lot of Plum Creek corporation’s Greenville office, while filming footage for a documentary on the company’s proposed resort-development project around Moosehead Lake, which the NFN opposes.

Plum Creek officials told the Bangor Daily News they have been rigorously enforcing their “no trespassing” signs since 2005, when the company’s equipment and property was vandalized, and some was stolen.

The encounter went beyond a parking-lot standoff: after the NFN volunteers were cornered by a private security guard, they were allowed to leave, but were later tracked down by members of three law-enforcement agencies (a Greenville policeman, two Piscataquis County sheriff’s deputies, and two Maine Game Wardens) and questioned further, including about whether the group — armed only with a video camera — was violent or had any explosives, according to Posner.

Posner says she denied an officer’s request to search her car because he lacked a search warrant, and adds that the officer responded that her answer made him suspicious. She quoted him as saying, “It seems like you really know your rights, but you’re trying to hide something.”

She fears the new law could make things even worse, with activists “being tied up the courts,” distracted from their constitutionally protected activism.

And even the proposal of the law is an obstacle, Posner says, noting that now people who would otherwise be calling attention to social and environmental problems have to lobby DC politicians to keep their First Amendment rights unsullied.