Published on Monday, February 9, 2004 by the Madison Capital Times (Wisconsin)
Right to Protest at Risk
by Judy Ettenhofer
Through dramatic but nonviolent protests, Greenpeace has for more than 30 years brought the world's attention to - and helped reduce - actions that degrade the environment. Nuclear testing, seal and whale hunting and toxic emissions all have been curbed in the aftermath of Greenpeace efforts to expose their deleterious effects on human and animal species.
But the group's extraordinary worldwide impact could be cut back if U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has his way. Greenpeace faces unprecedented criminal charges that could significantly diminish the group's ability to operate - and potentially chill similar protest acts by a wide array of activist organizations.
The case stems from an action by Greenpeace off the coast of Florida related to one of its causes, protesting illegal logging. On April 12, 2002, Greenpeace activists in small boats pulled up to a cargo ship outside the Port of Miami that they believed was carrying a shipment of mahogany illegally exported from Brazil. Two members of Greenpeace boarded the cargo ship with the intention of unfurling a banner reading "President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging."
The duo were blocked in their efforts and arrested, along with four other protesters. They were charged with interfering with the Coast Guard and illegally boarding the ship. They spent the weekend in jail and paid a fine, typical punishments for those who practice the long-honored tradition of civil disobedience.
But these are not tolerant times for civil disobedience. And for Greenpeace in particular, which has long objected to a number of George W. Bush's environmental policies, this is not a tolerant presidential administration. Fifteen months after the cargo ship incident, Greenpeace was charged under an obscure 1872 federal law against "sailor-mongering," a long-ago practice by workers at brothels and taverns of boarding ships to entice sailors ashore.
What the law specifically prohibits is unofficial boarding of a ship about to arrive at its destination - which is technically what Greenpeace did. However, the law hasn't been used in more than 100 years, said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University.
"The extraordinary effort made to find and use this obscure law strongly suggests a campaign of selective prosecution - the greatest scourge of the First Amendment," Turley wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "Greenpeace was engaged in a classic protest used by countless organizations, from those of the civil rights movement to anti-abortion groups. It is a way for citizens to express their opposition by literally standing in the path of the government."
John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace in the United States, asserts Ashcroft's prosecution of his group is unprecedented. "Never before has our government criminally prosecuted an entire organization for the free speech activities of its supporters," he said. "If this prosecution succeeds, then peaceful protest - an essential American tradition from the Boston Tea Party through the modern civil rights movement - may become yet another casualty of Attorney General Ashcroft's attack on civil liberties."
Passacantando's words aren't mere hyperbole. If Greenpeace is convicted, it could be fined $10,000 and placed on five years' probation, requiring regular oversight by a federal probation officer. The group's tactics and membership rolls would be open to close federal scrutiny. Some observers also fear the group could lose its tax-exempt status, ruinous to a nonprofit organization.
In late December, lawyers for Greenpeace asked for the charges to be dismissed, contending the case "implicates the fundamental rights of all Americans to engage in peaceful protest." U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan said he would rule on the request early this year. If it's denied, a trial could occur in May.
Ashcroft's pursuit of Greenpeace may be draped with the banner of domestic security concerns, but that's a cover for his real purpose: to quash critics of the Bush administration by making them hesitant to exercise their free speech right to protest.
Such protest is fundamental to a democracy, both honored and assured by America's founders. Ashcroft's attempt to compromise this principle brings a chill over us all.
Judy Ettenhofer has worked at The Capital Times off and on for more than 10 years, serving as an assistant city editor and a copy editor before joining the Editorial Section in 2002 to write editorials and columns. Her journalism career has spanned four states, seven newspapers and two magazines. A Spring Green resident, she values Wisconsin’s rural spaces and non-human inhabitants.
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times