Sales on RNC Eight: Balance Between Civil Liberties and Security

Commenting in, PATRIOT Act expert Professor Nathan Sales discussed issues surrounding the upcoming prosecution of the RNC Eight, the first group to face terrorism charges under the Minnesota Patriot Act of 2002, an anti-terrorism law enacted in the aftermath of 9/11. The RNC Eight are accused of having planned activities designed to disrupt the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2008.

In the ongoing national debate over the balance between protection of civil liberties and the need for security from terrorist threats, the Minnesota case takes center stage as the state seeks to decide when legal political protest crosses the line to take the form of terrorism.

Speaking of such cases in general, Sales said, "There is peaceful protest and criminal protest. Even the criminal protests seem to be pretty far removed from our common sense understanding of what terrorism is."

In drafting anti-terrorism legislation, lawmakers have chosen to include language flexible enough to be applicable not only to the large-scale terrorist acts that the U.S. has experienced, but also the the less dramatic forms that often take place in other countries, Sales explains.

"Low-grade crimes—throwing a bottle through a window or a rock at a police officer—ought to be prosecuted, but they do not rise to the level of severe conduct that in our common sense usage we would describe as terrorist acts," he said, emphasizing that the challenge for protesters is to not go too far.

The challenge for the Minnesota court will be to determine whether or not the charges against the RNC Eight rise to the level of terrorism.

Meet the RNC Eight: Are they terrorists?, April 6, 2009. By Sharon Schmickle.

"Even as early as 2004, standing up to the PATRIOT Act was becoming good politics, David Weigel wrote in 'When Patriots Dissent,' published by Reason.

"'The PATRIOT Act is . . . becoming the most galvanizing legislation for civil liberties activists since the Sedition Act of 1918,' Weigel wrote.

"After post-9/11 shock faded, questions of whether the federal act went too far began to transcend typical left-right politics, he said, and 'some of the act's most influential opponents are very conservative people in very red states.'

"Rather than follow Minnesota and pass their own Patriot Acts, two states — Alaska and Vermont — passed resolutions opposing the federal act, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Legislatures in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Michigan, New Hampshire and Washington considered similar resolutions.

"It's hard to say how many states joined Minnesota because the acts typically took on different names, said a researcher at the National Conference. What is certain is that a flurry of anti-terrorism and homeland security legislation passed in states during 2002 and 2003.

Written broadly
"Given the fear gripping the nation at the time, it's easy to understand why the Minnesota Legislature took a broad sweep against terrorism, said Ted Sampsell-Jones, who teaches criminal defense law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

"'Put yourself in the place of a legislator back then, and you say, "OK, something terrible has happened and we want to write a law to cover it." But we don't want to make it too narrow because you can't anticipate every possible situation that will come up,' he said. 'So you end up writing in broad terms. It may end up applying to things they didn't anticipate.'"

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