On Thursday, August 22nd, travelers to Iceland received an e-mail from the United States Embassy in Reykjavik, Iceland, that discouraged US citizens from participating in political protest against the actions of the US government. It also labeled a peaceful advocacy organization a potential security threat, representing the increased used of a tactic to describe protesters using the language of terrorism. These actions have deep implications for the right of US citizens to dissent.
Titled “United States Embassy Reykjavik, Iceland Security Message for US Citizens,” the e-mail would first appear to warn of a terror threat or natural disaster. In context, the message arrives at the tail of the shutdown and evacuation of several embassies across the Middle East following an Al Qaeda terror threat.
Yet the message is about neither, instead warning travelers to steer clear of a protest against the unprecedented sentencing the previous day of army whistleblower Chelsea Manning to thirty-five years in prison. Human rights and civil liberties organizations have decried the decision issued by a court martial in Fort Meade, Maryland, pointing, for instance, to Manning’s exposure of crimes committed by the US army against civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Manning supporters also protest President Barack Obama’s aggressive stance toward whistleblowers, which has resulted in more prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act than under all other presidents combined.
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The US State Department is known to sometimes jump the gun with its travel warnings (The New York Times recently ran a cartoon making fun of it). Some journalistic organizations in Iceland and elsewhere have picked up on the story and its absurdity. But what is most disturbing from a legal standpoint is that the US government is, under cover of national security, compelling US citizens not to protest against it.
“You should avoid areas of demonstrations” are not instructions one expects to hear from a government founded on the fundamental rights of assembly and protest guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The US government’s plea to citizens to steer clear of protests is hardly subtle. It identifies the protest and organization, the “Bradley Manning support network,” by name. The government then insists that “We urge US citizens to avoid the immediate area if possible, and to exercise caution near any demonstrations that may occur.”
The embassy hints that the demonstration is meant to be peaceful one, hinging its warning on an unsubstantiated possibility of it turning violent. “Even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence.” The demonstration is in Iceland, where the last major protests resulted in peaceful and equitable steps to remedy the financial crisis there. The threat of political violence in Iceland is minimal. And, the demonstration itself was completely peaceful.
The real message behind this e-mail is unambiguous – the US government asserts that Manning supporters pose a security threat (potentially turning violent) and an inconvenience (preventing travelers from obtaining embassy services). The message also attaches a negative connotation to protest. Even if demonstrations are not meant to be violent, they ought to be avoided, because who knows, they might – might – become a threat.
One user on Twitter, @JenAnneHarvey, summed it up best: “Dear US citizen. Due to your govts. policies you may be endangered as others exercise their democratic right to protest.”
At stake is political protest – namely, political protest against views that oppose the Obama administration. Indeed, there is no question that the views of the Manning support network and its allies are at odds with those of the present US administration. President Obama’s staff pressed the charges against Manning, and demonstrations like this one critique his policies against whistleblowers.
But US courts have consistently held that political speech dissenting against the US government lies at the heart of the First Amendment and of democratic government. In the seminal First Amendment case New York Times v. Sullivan, Justice Hugo Black wrote that “an unconditional right to say what one pleases about public affairs is what I consider to be the minimum guarantee of the First Amendment.” Justice Black also wrote, in International Association of Machinists v. Street, that “The very reason for the First Amendment is to make the people of this country free to think, speak, write and worship as they wish, not as the Government commands.” Justice Kennedy wrote in the controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision that “When Government seeks to use its full power . . . to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought.”
The painting of protesters as a national security threat is a disturbing and real tactic. For instance, the thesis of Peter J. DeBartolo Jr. studies how the NYPD painted protesters of the 2004 Republican National Convention as a national security risk, using the language of terrorism and national security. He cites other sociologists who have discovered that virtually any form of dissent can be painted in the language of terrorism: “[F]raming of the enemy, especially an unknown one . . . gives manoeuvre to enlist many adversaries and political opponents as potential enemies.” The effect is to trigger subtle connections “about legitimacy and violence” in the minds of lay persons that discourage them from wanting anything to do with the protests.
The US government should not be telling US citizens that they cannot protest, either directly or indirectly. Certainly, they should not be singling out organizations by name and insinuating that they might pose a security threat with no proof. Under this logic, any protest, any gathering, and in fact any meeting between two people “could be” a security threat. The same tactic can be used to scare US citizens into not exercising their constitutional rights.