by San Francisco Chronicle Editorial –
(January 4, 2004) — PEOPLE WHO commit nonviolent civil disobedience should know there are consequences. You can be hurt, fined or arrested; you may even serve time in prison.
Still, such dissent has a long and honorable tradition in American history — from the abolitionists to the modern civil rights movement, when sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience captured the nation’s attention and ended legal segregation.
Employing such tactics, two Greenpeace activists in April 2002 climbed aboard a cargo ship off the Florida coast from an inflatable speed boat. Before they could unfurl a banner protesting the alleged importation of mahogany from Brazil — stringently regulated by the international community to prevent damage to the Amazon’s environment — they were detained, spent a weekend in custody, were released, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and were sentenced to the time already served.
Normally, that would be the end of the story.
Fifteen months later, however, federal prosecutors in Miami indicted Greenpeace, the organization, for authorizing an act of civil disobedience. They used an obscure 1872 law intended to end the practice of “sailor mongering” — luring sailors with liquor and prostitutes.
Although the organization cannot serve time in prison, it can be placed on probation and required to report its activities to the government. Greenpeace could also lose its tax-exempt status, which would destroy the public interest organization.
John Ashcroft’s Campaign to Protect the Nation against Free Speech
Greenpeace was an early critic of the Bush administration. Soon after the Bush inauguration, Greenpeace activists held a demonstration at the president’s ranch where they unfurled a banner reading “Bush: The Toxic Texan. Don’t Mess With the Earth.” Ever since, they have a waged a persistent campaign against Bush’s environmental policies.
To Jonathan Turley, a professor law at George Washington University, this obscure “law is being used to prosecute the administration’s most vocal critics in an unprecedented attack on the First Amendment . . . and appears to be part of a broader campaign by (Attorney General John) Ashcroft to protect the nation against free speech.”
For much of its history, Greenpeace has used various means of civil disobedience to draw attention to the dangers of nuclear submarines, human rights abuses and threats to the environment.
These protestors are not above the law. When they trespass, stop commerce or otherwise intrude on others’ rights, they should be arrested and forced to face the consequences. But the Bush administration is going too far by trying to use the relatively minor offenses of a few individuals to incapacitate an organization.
The prosecution of Greenpeace has the foul smell of politics and an attempt to stifle dissent.