By Thomas S. Neuberger
April 7, 2016
In July 2015, I reported on and analyzed the FBI’s Communities Against Terrorism Program and concluded that it made every adult citizen a terrorism suspect. In January 2016, the FBI announced that it wants to make every high school teacher, administrator and student in America a spy to report to it or local State police suspicious words or activity by any teenager attending our schools. The FBI was not satisfied with its 2012 Communities Against Terrorism Program which asks our neighbors to read any of 25 widely circulated posters and then to report us if we act in certain suspicious ways. Now the FBI has widened its net to over 15 million teenagers in our high schools.
As I explained previously, the dangerous speech which the FBI wanted our neighbors to report included, for example, (1) posting anti-government or environmental slogans, banners, or signs that imply violence; (2) spraying anti-government graffiti; (3) downloading material of an extreme or radical nature with violent themes, or preoccupation with press coverage of terrorist attacks; (4) making unusual anti‑U.S. comments; or (5) making extreme racist or religious statements coupled with sentiments which appear to condone violence. As can be seen from this list of overbroad, vague and legally protected activities or speech which the FBI claims are red flags for terrorism, the FBI has little concern for our Bill of Rights, such as the right to speak freely or to read what we want.
And now, with a little sugar coating and Orwellian new speak, there is a dire warning that without this new program a student out there may detonate a “weapon of mass destruction” on all of us. So in January the FBI went after all our high school students when it issued its Preventing Violent Extremism In Schools Guidelines. Specifically, the FBI wants its spies to report any “statements or actions” which “cause concern.” “Schools should focus on a student’s behaviors and communications,” such as supporting “domestic extremist movements,” international terrorist organizations or hate crimes.
Within its category of “domestic terrorists,” the FBI identifies several violent extremism movements, “including but not limited to animal rights and eco‑terrorists, and anti‑government or radical separatist groups.” There it is again, “anti-government” speech, just like in the widely circulated FBI posters. The FBI puts such domestic groups right up there with ISIS and Al Qa’ida, as those who “decry western policies” or mistrust the government. Indeed, the FBI also identifies as needing watching teenagers with unacceptable “religious or cultural biases” after being raised in families outside the mainstream of society.
Now to keep a classmate from eventually using that ever useful propaganda tool known as a “weapon of mass destruction,” what will your average non-lawyer teachers do when “anti-government” words come out of the mouth of a student who opposes an oil pipeline or wants to “save the whales”? Call the FBI, of course. Will they err on the side of safety or let youthful exuberance slide?
The core problem here is that “the FBI defines violent extremism as encouraging, condoning, justifying, or supporting the commission of a violent act to achieve political, ideological, religious, social or economic goals.” But its premise is wrong that suspicious comments against government or vague or cryptic warnings that suggest or appear to endorse the use of violence in support of a cause are grounds to consider someone a potential terrorist. Remember Patrick Henry’s Revolutionary War cry – “Give me liberty or give me death.” If ever there was a statement endorsing violence, this is it, but he was a patriot. And I emphasize that the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that government, and this includes the FBI, cannot “forbid or prescribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969). So reporting students for “encouraging, supporting or justifying” violence as a means to social goals is clearly illegal. In a classic case, this must lead to the investigation of students reading about or discussing revolution, Marxism, Communism or whatever failed doctrine is still out there, even the radical theories behind the American Revolution in 1776 or the French Revolution a few years later.
Writing for the Rutherford Institute, constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead has pointed out the conflict here with our own early history: “Try suggesting, as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin did, that Americans should not only take up arms but be prepared to shed blood in order to protect their liberties, and you might find yourself placed on a terrorist watch list and vulnerable to being rounded up by government agents,” he notes. Declared Jefferson, “What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance. Let them take arms.” Observed Franklin, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well‑armed lamb contesting the vote!” So what if a well-read student suggests in class, as Thomas Paine, Marquis de Lafayette, and John Adams did, that Americans should, if necessary, defend themselves against the government if it violates their rights. He or she may be labeled a domestic extremist for such “anti-government” sentiments.
So if our public, private or religious schools anywhere in the United States give in and spy on over 15 million students, do the new Guidelines say anything about protecting the freedoms our fathers in World War II died to preserve? Buried in 28 pages we do find a paragraph containing a long mouthful of legalese which claims to recognize the “difference between protected speech and illegal incitement” and concedes that “espousing anti‑U.S. sentiment or extremist rhetoric is not a crime.” Educators are advised that “the issue is not if the individual voiced his/her support, but rather has advocated imminent violence in support of an extremist organization and that violence is likely to occur as a result.” For example, students consuming “violent propaganda” may result “in a strengthening of beliefs and aid development of radical views or a willingness to use violence in support of an ideology.” Again, what will a non-lawyer administrator do in light of these long equivocating statements and the possible threat of mass destruction? He or she will err on the side of safety which, I expect, is the real purpose behind the FBI’s Guidelines.
And this will take us one step further down the road to a police state with our neighbors, teachers and others monitoring our thoughts, speech and communications for disfavored ideas. And then there will be the knock at the door demanding to question our son or daughter because someone has turned them in to have their thoughts, tweets, Facebook posts, reading material or speech reviewed before federal or local police.
The FBI is making us into a nation of spies and informers at the cost of our heritage and freedoms. It is behaving as the feared Stasi in Communist East Germany, the secret police in Stalin’s Soviet Russia, or Hitler’s dreaded Gestapo, turning every neighbor into a spy on the other. For the FBI most of us incorrectly fit the bill as extremists or terrorists. But again, recall our Colonial ancestor Patrick Henry, who argued about the value of potential violence in 1788, “Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined.” The FBI wants to question every student voicing similar sentiments.
That is plainly un-American and should not be permitted in any public, private or religious school.
Thomas S. Neuberger is an author and a civil liberties attorney.
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