The measure, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, would establish a 12-member commission to examine and report on what the bill calls "violent radicalization," "homegrown terrorism" and "ideologically based violence."
The bill, which contains language about protecting civil rights and civil liberties, drew broad bipartisan support in a House vote last year.
But to the speakers at Tuesday's rally, the proposed government panel is reminiscent of the House Un-American Activities Commission, which investigated suspected Communists during the 1950s and is now seen widely as part of a shameful chapter in U.S. history.
The protesters expressed concern that what they described as vague language could put many people in the government's crosshairs.
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said the bill sends a message that political dissent and radical ideology are dangerous.
What is dangerous, she argued, is the bill's rhetoric. The measure would pose a threat to Americans' free-speech rights, she said.
"What I take this bill to say is that you may be targeted whether you're on the left or the right," Bellows said.
Maureen Block, the rally's organizer, said the bill would use fear and intimidation to try to silence people whose views challenge authority.
"Dissent is patriotic," she told a group of about 40 protesters in Monument Square.
Shortly before the rally, Collins' office distributed a news release about the bill.
The news release notes that the measure would not criminalize any behavior, but only study threats.
"The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act has nothing to do with a group or individual's right to protest peacefully," the news release says. "The bill would in no way infringe Americans' privacy or civil liberties."
Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, who is running to unseat Collins in November, voted last year for the House version of the bill, which passed by a 404-6 vote.
"This bill is a common sense approach to uncovering the root causes of domestic terrorism," Allen said Tuesday in a written statement. "It explicitly prohibits the Department of Homeland Security from violating the civil rights and personal liberties of U.S. citizens, guaranteeing personal freedoms while advancing the security of the country."
Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, also voted for the House version of the bill. The Senate Homeland Security Committee, on which Collins is the ranking Republican, has yet to consider the Senate version. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, indicated Tuesday that she will also support the bill.
Staff Writer Kevin Wack can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2008 Portland Press Herald