Posts Tagged ‘free speech’

LAWRENCEVILLE, Va. — Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed a petition with a Virginia Circuit Court challenging an order of the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) cancelling, revoking and/or demanding the return of specialty commemorative license plates issued to the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) bearing the Confederate battle flag on the grounds that such a recall is unauthorized by Virginia law and beyond the power of the DMV. The DMV’s order comes in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that states issuing specialty license plates may engage in viewpoint discrimination when granting applications for specialty license plate designs. However, in the petition challenging the DMV’s September 2015 order, Rutherford Institute attorneys assert the order is unlawful and does not comply with Virginia statutes relating to the cancellation and recall of license plates.

“No matter what the U.S. Supreme Court might say about the matter, the First Amendment is unmistakably clear about the fact that the government has no right to dictate how we should act, what we should believe or what we should say, nor should it be in the business of determining what is or is not offensive, whether such expression appears on a license plate, a T-shirt, or a protest sign,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People.

Under Virginia law, specialty Virginia license plates bearing an organization’s logo and motto in addition to letters and numbers as found on other Virginia license plates may be issued to members and supporters of various organizations or groups. In 1999, The Rutherford Institute and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the history and legacy of citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, brought a lawsuit against Virginia and the DMV challenging its refusal to include the logo of the SCV which includes the Confederate battle flag. A federal district court ruled in 2001 that the State’s refusal to include the Confederate battle flag on SCV specialty plates constituted viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment. This ruling was upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002.

Shortly thereafter, the DMV began issuing SCV specialty license plates which included a display of the Confederate battle flag. However, in June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Walker v. Tex. Div. of SCV that specialty license plates do not represent the speech of the individual motorists who purchase them, and that Texas could refuse to issue plates with the SCV’s Confederate battle flag logo. Following the ruling, Virginia’s DMV was granted permission by a federal court to be relieved from the orders entered in 2001 and 2002 respecting the SCV specialty plates. Soon after, the DMV notified SCV members that the previously-issued plates had been cancelled and were being recalled. In legal papers filed with the Circuit Court for Brunswick County, on behalf of Leonard Tracy Clary, Rutherford Institute attorneys challenge the DMV’s decision to cancel, revoke and/or demand the return of the SCV license plates, while ordering that recipients display new plates that do not bear the true logo of the SCV, which includes the Confederate battle flag.

Attorney Fred D. Taylor of Bush & Taylor, P.C., in Suffolk, Va., is assisting The Rutherford Institute in representing Clary and challenging the DMV order.

 

RICHMOND, Va. — A federal court has rejected an attempt by a Virginia police officer to dismiss a lawsuit filed by The Rutherford Institute on behalf of a man who was arrested as he was engaged in a First Amendment protest against President Obama while lawfully carrying a rifle.

The order entered in Brandon Howard v. John Hunter, allows the lawsuit to move forward.

Rutherford Institute attorneys assert that the police violated Howard’s First Amendment right to free speech, Second Amendment right to bear arms, and Fourth Amendment right to be free from a groundless arrest when they confronted him with guns drawn and ordered him to the ground on the unfounded belief that Howard was violating the law by being in public with a rifle slung over his shoulder, when in fact his possession and display of the rifle was wholly legal and did not make him subject to an arrest.  Soon after the incident, the City of Hopewell Police Department  admitted in writing that the incident involved a violation of department policy.

Click here to read The Rutherford Institute’s reply brief in Brandon Howard v. John Hunter .

“As this case shows, if you feel like you can’t walk away from a police encounter of your own volition—and more often than not you can’t, especially when you’re being confronted by someone armed to the hilt with all manner of militarized weaponry and gear—then for all intents and purposes, you’re under arrest from the moment a cop stops you,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Certainly, if you’ve been placed in handcuffs and transported to a police station against your will, that constitutes an arrest.”

On Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, Brandon Howard arrived at an overpass above Interstate 295 in the City of Hopewell, Va., and displayed a 6 foot by 4 foot sign that read “Impeach Obama.” Howard was carrying a DMTS Panther Arms AR-15 rifle slung over his shoulder on a strap, and a .380 caliber Bersa Thunder sidearm pistol in a belted holster on his waist. Howard lawfully owned each firearm and did not point or brandish them at any time while engaged in his First Amendment protest activity on the overpass. Howard displayed his protest sign for 30 minutes, but Howard did not directly engage with anyone.

At about 5:30 p.m., a police officer pulled up to the area, remained in his car and observed Howard. Thereafter, three to five additional police cruisers arrived at the scene with emergency lights engaged.  Approximately eight officers exited these vehicles with their guns drawn and ordered Howard to drop his sign and get on the ground with his hands spread above his head. Howard complied with the officers’ orders.

Despite the fact that Howard at no time made any threatening action toward the officers or anyone else, one police officer allegedly asked Howard, “What do you think you are doing threatening people on my interstate?” Howard explained that he had not threatened anyone but was simply exercising his First and Second amendment rights. Howard was then handcuffed and transported to the police station, where he was left, handcuffed, in an interrogation room for 90 minutes, after which time he had his firearms returned and was released. A month later, the Deputy Chief of Police acknowledged in writing that an internal investigation had concluded that one of the officers violated department policy and would be disciplined and sent to remedial training. Attorney Raul Novo of Richmond, Va., is assisting The Rutherford Institute with the lawsuit.

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“If the freedom of speech be taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”—George Washington

The architects of the American police state must think we’re idiots.

With every passing day, we’re being moved further down the road towards a totalitarian society characterized by government censorship, violence, corruption, hypocrisy and intolerance, all packaged for our supposed benefit in the Orwellian doublespeak of national security, tolerance and so-called “government speech.”

Long gone are the days when advocates of free speech could prevail in a case such as Tinker v. Des Moines. Indeed, it’s been 50 years since 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker was suspended for wearing a black armband to school in protest of the Vietnam War. In taking up her case, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Were Tinker to make its way through the courts today, it would have to overcome the many hurdles being placed in the path of those attempting to voice sentiments that may be construed as unpopular, offensive, conspiratorial, violent, threatening or anti-government.

Consider, if you will, that the U.S. Supreme Court, historically a champion of the First Amendment, has declared that citizens can exercise their right to free speech everywhere it’s lawful—online, in social media, on a public sidewalk, etc.—as long as they don’t do so in front of the Court itself.

What is the rationale for upholding this ban on expressive activity on the Supreme Court plaza?

“Allowing demonstrations directed at the Court, on the Court’s own front terrace, would tend to yield the…impression…of a Court engaged with — and potentially vulnerable to — outside entreaties by the public.”

Translation: The appellate court that issued that particular ruling in Hodge v. Talkin actually wants us to believe that the Court is so impressionable that the justices could be swayed by the sight of a single man, civil rights activist Harold Hodge, standing alone and silent in the snow in a 20,000 square-foot space in front of the Supreme Court building wearing a small sign protesting the toll the police state is taking on the lives of black and Hispanic Americans. [You can watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xy1HQm67b2c]

My friends, we’re being played for fools.

The Supreme Court is not going to be swayed by you or me or Harold Hodge.

For that matter, the justices—all of whom hale from one of two Ivy League schools (Harvard or Yale) and most of whom are now millionaires and enjoy such rarefied privileges as lifetime employment, security details, ample vacations and travel perks—are anything but impartial.

If they are partial, it is to those with whom they are on intimate terms: with Corporate America and the governmental elite who answer to them, and they show their favor by investing in their businesses, socializing at their events, and generally marching in lockstep with their values and desires in and out of the courtroom.

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 9.56.09 AMTo suggest that Harold Hodge, standing in front of the Supreme Court building on a day when the Court was not in session hearing arguments or issuing rulings, is a threat to the Court’s neutrality, while their dalliances with Corporate America is not, is utter hypocrisy.

Making matters worse, the Supreme Court has the effrontery to suggest that the government can discriminate freely against First Amendment activity that takes place within a government forum. Justifying such discrimination as “government speech,” the Court ruled that the Texas Dept. of Motor Vehicles could refuse to issue specialty license plate designs featuring a Confederate battle flag because it was offensive.

If it were just the courts suppressing free speech, that would be one thing to worry about, but First Amendment activities are being pummeled, punched, kicked, choked, chained and generally gagged all across the country.

The reasons for such censorship vary widely from political correctness, safety concerns and bullying to national security and hate crimes but the end result remains the same: the complete eradication of what Benjamin Franklin referred to as the “principal pillar of a free government.”

Officials at the University of Tennessee, for instance, recently introduced an Orwellian policy that would prohibit students from using gender specific pronouns and be more inclusive by using gender “neutral” pronouns such as ze, hir, zir, xe, xem and xyr, rather than he, she, him or her.

On many college campuses, declaring that “America is the land of opportunity” or asking someone “Where were you born?” are now considered microaggressions, “small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.”  Trigger warnings are also being used to alert students to any material or ideas they might read, see or hear that might upset them.

More than 50 percent of the nation’s colleges, including Boston University, Harvard University, Columbia University and Georgetown University, subscribe to “red light” speech policies that restrict or ban so-called offensive speech, or limit speakers to designated areas on campus. The campus climate has become so hypersensitive that comedians such as Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld refuse to perform stand-up routines to college crowds anymore.

What we are witnessing is an environment in which political correctness has given rise to “vindictive protectiveness,” a term coined by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and educational First Amendment activist Greg Lukianoff. It refers to a society in which “everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression or worse.”

This is particularly evident in the public schools where students are insulated from anything—words, ideas and images—that might create unease or offense. For instance, the thought police at schools in Charleston, South Carolina, have instituted a ban on displaying the Confederate flag on clothing, jewelry and even cars on campus.

Added to this is a growing list of programs, policies, laws and cultural taboos that defy the First Amendment’s safeguards for expressive speech and activity. Yet as First Amendment scholar Robert Richards points out, “The categories of speech that fall outside of [the First Amendment’s] protection are obscenity, child pornography, defamation, incitement to violence and true threats of violence. Even in those categories, there are tests that have to be met in order for the speech to be illegal. Beyond that, we are free to speak.”

Technically, Richards is correct. On paper, we are free to speak.

In reality, however, we are only as free to speak as a government official may allow.

Free speech zones, bubble zones, trespass zones, anti-bullying legislation, zero tolerance policies, hate crime laws and a host of other legalistic maladies dreamed up by politicians and prosecutors have conspired to corrode our core freedoms.

Battlefield_Cover_300As a result, we are no longer a nation of constitutional purists for whom the Bill of Rights serves as the ultimate authority. As I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we have litigated and legislated our way into a new governmental framework where the dictates of petty bureaucrats carry greater weight than the inalienable rights of the citizenry.

It may seem trivial to be debating the merits of free speech at a time when unarmed citizens are being shot, stripped, searched, choked, beaten and tasered by police for little more than daring to frown, smile, question, challenge an order, or just breathe.

However, while the First Amendment provides no tangible protection against a gun wielded by a government agent, nor will it save you from being wrongly arrested or illegally searched, or having your property seized in order to fatten the wallets of government agencies, without the First Amendment, we are utterly helpless.

It’s not just about the right to speak freely, or pray freely, or assemble freely, or petition the government for a redress of grievances, or have a free press. The unspoken freedom enshrined in the First Amendment is the right to think freely and openly debate issues without being muzzled or treated like a criminal.

Just as surveillance has been shown to “stifle and smother dissent, keeping a populace cowed by fear,” government censorship gives rise to self-censorship, breeds compliance and makes independent thought all but impossible.

In the end, censorship and political correctness not only produce people that cannot speak for themselves but also people who cannot think for themselves. And a citizenry that can’t think for itself is a citizenry that will neither rebel against the government’s dictates nor revolt against the government’s tyranny.

The end result: a nation of sheep who willingly line up for the slaughterhouse.

The cluttered cultural American landscape today is one in which people are so distracted by the military-surveillance-entertainment complex that critical thinkers are in the minority and frank, unfiltered, uncensored speech is considered uncivil, uncouth and unacceptable.

That’s the point, of course.

The architects, engineers and lever-pullers who run the American police state want us to remain deaf, dumb and silent. They want our children raised on a vapid diet of utter nonsense, where common sense is in short supply and the only viewpoint that matters is the government’s.

We are becoming a nation of idiots, encouraged to spout political drivel and little else.

In so doing, we have adopted the lexicon of Newspeak, the official language of George Orwell’s fictional Oceania, which was “designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought.” As Orwell explained in 1984, “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc [the state ideology of Oceania], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.”

If Orwell envisioned the future as a boot stamping on a human face, a fair representation of our present day might well be a muzzle on that same human face.

If we’re to have any hope for the future, it will rest with those ill-mannered, bad-tempered, uncivil, discourteous few who are disenchanted enough with the status quo to tell the government to go to hell using every nonviolent means available.

However, as Orwell warned, you cannot become conscious until you rebel.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Delivering a sharp blow to the First Amendment, a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court has declared specialty license plates to be “government speech” and not private speech and, thus, subject to censorship by government officials. The Rutherford Institute warns that the ruling could set a dangerous precedent, paving the way for the government to censor private speech whenever it occurs in a public or government forum. At issue in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., was whether Texas officials violated the First Amendment when they denied a Civil War heritage group’s request for a specialty plate bearing the Confederate battle flag, allegedly because the Department of Motor Vehicles was concerned some people would be offended by the Confederate flag.

In weighing in on the case, The Rutherford Institute had urged the Court to affirm that specialty license plates—which run the gamut in Texas from college alumni associations and fast food chains to real estate brokers and Dr. Pepper—are private speech which may not be censored on the basis of viewpoint. Institute attorneys also argued that by inviting groups to engage in private speech and contribute to the marketplace of ideas, the government surrendered the right to treat the license plate as “government speech” subject to any censorship the state deems appropriate.

“This ruling sanctions total government censorship. We are witnessing an elitist philosophy at play, one shared by both the extreme left and the extreme right, which aims to stifle all expression that doesn’t fit within their parameters of what they consider to be ‘acceptable’ speech, ” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “There are all kinds of labels put on such speech: it’s been called politically incorrect speech, hate speech, offensive speech, and so on, but really, the message being conveyed is that you don’t have a right to express yourself if certain people don’t like or agree with what you are saying.”

Like many states, Texas allows motorists to use specialty license plates, which display a message or symbol supporting a cause or nonprofit group. By law, any nonprofit organization is allowed to apply for a specialty plate by submitting a design to be approved by the Department of Motor Vehicles. In 2009, Texas SCV, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve the memory and reputation of soldiers who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, applied for a specialty license plate and submitted a design that featured the SCV logo, which is a Confederate battle flag framed on all four sides by the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896.” When the matter reached the DMV, it asked for public comment on approval of the application, and in response received comments both supporting and against the application. Eventually, the DMV voted to deny the application, explaining that some of the public comments found the Confederate flag portion of the propose plate offensive. The SCV then filed suit, alleging that the denial of the application constituted viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment. A district court subsequently ruled that the state did not violate the Constitution. On appeal, however, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed that decision, holding that the specialty license plates are private speech protected by the First Amendment. Moreover, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the DMV unconstitutionally discriminated against the SCV by classifying as offensive its view that the Confederate flag is a symbol of sacrifice, independence, and Southern heritage.

Affiliate attorneys D. Alicia Hickok and Todd N. Hutchinson of Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP, in Philadelphia, assisted The Rutherford Institute in advancing the arguments in the amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rutherford Institute Attorneys Present Oral Argument Before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Defense of Marine Who Was Arrested & Locked Up in a Psych Ward for Criticizing the Government on Facebook

RICHMOND, Va. — Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute will present oral argument in Raub v. Campbell before the U.S. Court of  Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Jan. 28, 2015, asking the court to reinstate the lawsuit of a decorated Marine who was seized by a swarm of Secret Service, FBI and local police officials and involuntary committed for a week because of controversial song lyrics and political views he posted on his Facebook page. In a related matter, Rutherford Institute attorneys have filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in Elonis v. United States on behalf of a Pennsylvania man who was charged with making unlawful threats and sentenced to 44 months in jail after he posted allusions to popular song lyrics and comedy routines on his Facebook page.

“Whether it’s a Marine arrested for criticizing the government on Facebook or an ex-husband jailed for expressing his frustrations through rap lyrics on Facebook, the end result is the same—the criminalization of free speech,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “While social media and the Internet have become critical forums for individuals to freely share information and express their ideas, they have unfortunately also become tools for the government to monitor, control and punish the populace for behavior and speech that may be controversial but are far from criminal.”

Brandon Raub, a decorated Marine who has served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, uses his Facebook page to post song lyrics and air his political opinions. On Aug.16, 2012, Chesterfield police, Secret Service and FBI agents arrived at Raub’s home, asked to speak with him about his Facebook posts, and without providing any explanation, levying any charges against Raub or reading him his rights, handcuffed Raub and transported him to police headquarters, then to a medical facility, where he was held against his will for psychological evaluation and treatment.

In coming to Raub’s aid, Rutherford Institute attorneys challenged the government’s actions as a violation of Raub’s First and Fourth Amendment rights. On Aug. 23, Circuit Court Judge Allan Sharrett ordered Raub’s immediate release, stating that the government’s case was “so devoid of any factual allegations that it could not be reasonably expected to give rise to a case or controversy.” Rutherford Institute attorneys filed a lawsuit in May 2013, challenging the government’s actions as procedurally improper and legally unjustified. In February 2014, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, rejecting concerns over government suppression of dissident speech as “far-fetched.”

In appealing to the Fourth Circuit, Institute attorneys claim that the Chesterfield County mental health screener who recommended Raub’s seizure and commitment failed to exercise reasonable professional judgment in interviewing and in wrongly determining that Raub was mentally ill and dangerous, thereby violating Raub’s rights under the Fourth Amendment. The lawsuit also asserts that Raub’s seizure and detention were the result of a mental health screener’s dislike of Raub’s “unpatriotic” views on federal government misconduct, thereby violating the ex-Marine’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

 

LEGAL ACTION

Click here to read The Rutherford Institute’s reply brief in Brandon Raub v. Michael Campbell

Click here to read The Rutherford Institute’s brief in Brandon Raub v. Michael Campbell

Click here to read Judge Hudson’s decision in Raub v. Bowen et. al.

Click here to read The Rutherford Institute’s complaint in Raub v. Bowen et. al.

WASHINGTON, D.C —The Rutherford Institute has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reject a lower court ruling that declared it unsafe for California public school students to wear American flag t-shirts to school. In asking the Supreme Court to hear the case of Dariano v. Morgan Hill, in which several students were ordered by school officials to cover up their American flag t-shirts on May 5, 2010, allegedly because officials feared that other students celebrating the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo would be offended, Rutherford Institute attorneys note that the school should have focused on controlling unruly students and not on stifling patriotic speech protected by the First Amendment.

A Government of Wolves book cover“There are all kinds of labels being put on so-called ‘unacceptable’ speech today, from calling it politically incorrect and hate speech to offensive and dangerous speech, but the real message being conveyed is that Americans don’t have a right to express themselves if what they are saying is unpopular or in any way controversial,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “Whether it’s through the use of so-called ‘free speech zones,’ the requirement of speech permits, or the policing of online forums, what we’re seeing is the caging of free speech and the asphyxiation of the First Amendment.”

On May 5, 2010, three Live Oak High School students wore patriotic t-shirts, shorts and shoes to school bearing various images of the U.S. flag. During a mid-morning “brunch break,” the students were approached by Assistant Principal Miguel Rodriguez, who told the students they could not wear their pro-U.S.A. shirts and gave them the option of either removing their shirts or turning them inside out. The students refused, believing the options to be disrespectful to the flag. Rodriguez allegedly lectured the group about Cinco de Mayo, indicating that he had received complaints from some Hispanic students about the stars and stripes apparel, and again ordered that the clothing be covered up to prevent offending the Hispanic students on “their” day. Principal Nick Boden also met with the parents and students and affirmed Rodriguez’s order, allegedly because he did not want to offend students who were celebrating Cinco de Mayo.

Arguing that the decision by school officials constituted viewpoint discrimination against pro-U.S.A. expression, Rutherford Institute attorneys filed suit on behalf of the students and their parents seeking a declaration that the action violated the First Amendment and injunctive relief against a vague school district policy allowing prior restraints on speech to be imposed upon students. The lawsuit asserted that school officials violated the students’ rights to Free Speech under the First Amendment, and their Due Process and Equal Protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. In November 2011, the district court ruled in favor of school officials, citing a concern for school safety. That ruling was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in February 2014. Although the appeals court acknowledged that other students were permitted to wear Mexican flag colors and symbols, it ruled that school officials could forbid the American flag apparel out of concerns that it would cause disruption, even though no disruption had occurred. Three of the nine judges on the Ninth Circuit agreed with The Rutherford Institute that school officials violated long-standing Supreme Court precedent forbidding suppression of protected expression on the basis of a “heckler’s veto,” which occurs when the government restricts an individual’s right to free speech in order to maintain order.

Affiliate attorney William J. Becker is assisting The Rutherford Institute in its defense of the students.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments today in a case that will significantly impact expression on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. In filing an amicus brief in Anthony D. Elonis v. United States of America, The Rutherford Institute argues that the First Amendment protects even inflammatory statements that may give offense or cause concern to others unless the statements were a credible threat to engage in violence against another and made by the defendant with the intent to cause fear in the alleged victim. The case arises out of Facebook postings made by Anthony Elonis expressing his anger about events in his life, and which were based upon rap lyrics of artists such as Eminem and a comedy sketch of the group The Whitest Kids U’ Know. Elonis was charged with making unlawful threats (it was never proven that he intended to threaten anyone) and sentenced to 44 months in jail after he posted allusions to popular song lyrics and comedy routines on his Facebook page.

“Whether it’s a Marine arrested for criticizing the government on Facebook or an ex-husband jailed for expressing his frustrations through rap lyrics on Facebook, the end result is the same—the criminalization of free speech,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “While social media and the Internet have become critical forums for individuals to freely share information and express their ideas, they have unfortunately also become tools for the government to monitor, control and punish the populace for behavior and speech that may be controversial but are far from criminal.”

Anthony Elonis was an active poster on Facebook who often used references to popular culture to express his views, feelings and frustration about events in his life. In May 2010, after Elonis’ wife left him and took his two children, he began listening to rap music and alluding to the sometimes violent lyrics of rap songs on his Facebook page. Elonis would couple these postings with statements acknowledging that the lyrics were fictitious and that he was simply exercising his First Amendment right of expression. After his estranged wife obtained a protection order against him, Elonis posted a reference to a comedy sketch of The Whitest Kids U’ Know about threatening language that Elonis changed to include a reference about harming his wife. In another post, Elonis used the lyrics of Eminem in which the rap artist included fantasized thoughts about shooting up a school. After federal agents were alerted to some of his postings, an investigator was sent to speak with Elonis. In response, Elonis posted rap lyrics he wrote containing fantasized language about having a bomb strapped to his body and doing violence to the agent. In response to these postings, the federal government charged Elonis under a statute making it a crime to transmit in interstate commerce any communication containing a threat to injure another. Elonis was convicted on four counts of violating this statute but appealed his conviction, arguing that the government should have been required to prove that he intended to threaten the alleged victims, not simply that the victims could reasonably have believed the words were “true threats.”

In weighing in on the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that “(i)n order to protect the First Amendment rights of speakers, courts must ensure that they are criminalizing more than just the unrealized and unrealizable fears of particularly sensitive listeners.” In a related case, The Rutherford Institute is also representing Marine veteran Brandon Raub, who was arrested, detained in a psychiatric ward, and forced to undergo psychological evaluations based solely on the controversial nature of lines from song lyrics, political messages and virtual card games which he posted to his private Facebook page.

ATLANTA, Ga. — Atlanta International Airport has changed its Wi-Fi policy to address violations of the U.S. Constitution’s assurances of free speech and due process which were brought to light in a letter from The Rutherford Institute to the Airport’s general manager earlier this month. Responding to the letter from Institute attorneys warning that the prior policy jeopardizes the rights of all travelers who pass through its portal and opens the Airport to legal challenges, the general manager wrote that the Wi-Fi policy has been amended to address the First Amendment problems raised in the Institute’s letter and affirmed that the Airport will not attempt to limit or monitor the expression of patrons conducted using the Airport’s Wi-Fi network. The Institute’s letter specifically pointed out that the airport’s Wi-Fi policy barring users from transmitting “hateful or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable” speech was so vague as to prohibit any speech that the censor—in this case, government officials—deems objectionable.

“There is perhaps no right more sacred in our Constitution than the right of individuals to speak as they believe, even though we may not always agree with what they have to say,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “While we all have an interest in discouraging behavior that demeans, harms or exposes another to abuse, we must balance that interest against the rights of society at large, remembering always that it is ‘we the people’ and not government censors who should be responsible for maintaining that vital balance between liberty and security.”

As reported by The Washington Post, the Atlanta International Airport required travelers to agree to abide by its “Wi-Fi System Acceptable Use Policy” in order to access its internet. According to the airport’s Wi-Fi policy, users may not: “Transmit any material (by uploading, posting, email or otherwise) that is unlawful, threatening, abusive, harassing, tortuous, defamatory, obscene, libelous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable.” The Wi-Fi policy also required users to affirm that they will not: “Transmit any material (by uploading, posting, email or otherwise) any unsolicited or unauthorized advertising, promotional materials, ‘junk mail,’ ‘spam,’ ‘chain letters,’ ‘pyramid schemes’ or any other form of solicitation.” In weighing in on the issue, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute pointed out that as a government-owned and operated entity under the jurisdiction of the City of Atlanta through the Department of Aviation, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is under an obligation to comply with the protections of the First Amendment in its activities. As such, although the government is not required to provide wireless Internet access to airport patrons, once it does so, the government-provided Internet becomes a public forum which must comply with the mandates of the First Amendment and which cannot discriminate on the content of speech. Additionally, Institute attorneys noted that the ban on transmitting solicitous materials is overbroad and would result in protected speech, including political speech, being targeted alongside that of chain mailers and spammers.

Back in the heyday of the old Soviet Union, a phrase evolved to describe gullible western intellectuals who came to visit Russia and failed to notice the human and other costs of building a communist utopia. The phrase was “useful idiots” and it applied to a good many people who should have known better. I now propose a new, analogous term more appropriate for the age in which we live: useful hypocrites. That’s you and me, folks, and it’s how the masters of the digital universe see us. And they have pretty good reasons for seeing us that way. They hear us whingeing about privacy, security, surveillance, etc., but notice that despite our complaints and suspicions, we appear to do nothing about it. In other words, we say one thing and do another, which is as good a working definition of hypocrisy as one could hope for.—John Naughton, The Guardian

“Who needs direct repression,” asked philosopher Slavoj Zizek, “when one can convince the chicken to walk freely into the slaughterhouse?”

In an Orwellian age where war equals peace, surveillance equals safety, and tolerance equals intolerance of uncomfortable truths and politically incorrect ideas, “we the people” have gotten very good at walking freely into the slaughterhouse, all the while convincing ourselves that the prison walls enclosing us within the American police state are there for our protection.

Call it doublespeak, call it hypocrisy, call it delusion, call it whatever you like, but the fact remains that while we claim to value freedom, privacy, individuality, equality, diversity, accountability, and government transparency, our actions and those of our government overseers contradict these much-vaunted principles at every turn.

For instance, we disdain the jaded mindset of the Washington elite, and yet we continue to re-elect politicians who lie, cheat and steal. We disapprove of the endless wars that drain our resources and spread thin our military, and yet we repeatedly buy into the idea that patriotism equals supporting the military. We chafe at taxpayer-funded pork barrel legislation for roads to nowhere, documentaries on food fights, and studies of mountain lions running on treadmills, and yet we pay our taxes meekly and without raising a fuss of any kind. We object to the militarization of our local police forces and their increasingly battlefield mindset, and yet we do little more than shrug our shoulders over SWAT team raids and police shootings of unarmed citizens.

And then there’s our love-hate affair with technology, which sees us bristling at the government’s efforts to monitor our internet activities, listen in on our phone calls, read our emails, track our every movement, and punish us for what we say on social media, and yet we keep using these very same technologies all the while doing nothing about the government’s encroachments on our rights. This contradiction is backed up by a recent Pew Research Center study, which finds that “Americans say they are deeply concerned about privacy on the web and their cellphones. They say they do not trust Internet companies or the government to protect it. Yet they keep using the services and handing over their personal information.”

Let me get this straight: the government continues to betray our trust, invade our privacy, and abuse our rights, and we keep going back for more?

A Government of Wolves book coverSure we do. After all, the alternative—taking a stand, raising a ruckus, demanding change, refusing to cooperate, engaging in civil disobedience—is a lot of work. What we fail to realize, however, is that by tacitly allowing these violations to continue, we not only empower the tyrant but we feed the monster. In this way, as I point out in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, what starts off as small, occasional encroachments on our rights, justified in the name of greater safety, becomes routine, wide-ranging abuses so entrenched as to make reform all but impossible.

We saw this happen with the police and their build-up of military arsenal, ostensibly to fight the war on drugs. The result: a transformation of America’s law enforcement agencies into extensions of the military, populated with battle-hardened soldiers who view “we the people” as enemy combatants.

The same thing happened with the government’s so-called efforts to get tough on crime by passing endless laws outlawing all manner of activities. The result: an explosion of laws criminalizing everything from parenting decisions and fishing to gardening and living off the grid.

And then there were the private prisons, marketed as a way to lower the government’s cost of locking up criminals. Only it turns out that private prisons actually cost the taxpayer more money and place profit incentives on jailing more Americans.

Are you starting to notice a pattern yet? The government lures us in with a scheme to make our lives better, our families safer, and our communities more secure, and then once we buy into it, they slam the trap closed. Doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about red light cameras, DNA databases, surveillance cameras, or zero tolerance policies—they all result in “we the people” being turned into enemy #1.

In this way, the government campaign to spy on our phone calls, letters and emails was sold to the American people as a necessary tool in the war on terror. Instead of targeting terrorists, however, the government has turned us into potential terrorists, so that if we dare say the wrong thing in a phone call, letter, email or on the internet, especially social media, we end up investigated, charged and possibly jailed.

This criminalization of free speech, which is exactly what the government’s prosecution of those who say the “wrong” thing using an electronic medium amounts to, is at the heart of Elonis v. The United States, a case before the U.S. Supreme Court this term.

If you happen to be one of the 1.31 billion individuals who use Facebook or one of the 255 million who tweet their personal and political views on Twitter, you might want to pay close attention, because the case has broad First Amendment implications for where the government can draw the line when it comes to expressive speech that is protected and permissible versus speech that could be interpreted as connoting a criminal intent.

The case arose after Anthony Elonis, an aspiring rap artist, used personal material from his life as source material and inspiration for rap lyrics which he then shared on Facebook. For instance, shortly after Elonis’ wife left him and he was fired from his job, his lyrics included references to killing his ex-wife, shooting a classroom of kindergarten children, and blowing up an FBI agent who had opened an investigation into his postings.

Despite the fact that Elonis routinely accompanied his Facebook posts with disclaimers that his lyrics were fictitious, and that he was using such writings as an outlet for his frustrations, he was charged with making unlawful threats (although it was never proven that he intended to threaten anyone) and sentenced to 44 months in jail.

Elonis is not the only Facebook user to be targeted for the content of his posts. In a similar case making its way through the courts, Marine veteran Brandon Raub was arrested by a swarm of FBI, Secret Service agents and local police and forcibly detained in a psychiatric ward because of controversial song lyrics and political views posted on his Facebook page. He was eventually released after a circuit court judge dismissed the charges against him as unfounded.

Earlier this year, rapper Jamal Knox and Rashee Beasley were sentenced to jail terms of up to six years for a YouTube video calling on listeners to “kill these cops ‘cause they don’t do us no good.” Although the rapper contended that he had no intention of bringing harm to the police, he was convicted of making terroristic threats and intimidation of witnesses.

And then there was Franklin Delano Jeffries II, an Iraq war veteran, who, in the midst of a contentious custody battle for his daughter, shared a music video on YouTube and Facebook in which he sings about the judge in his case, “Take my child and I’ll take your life.” Despite his insistence that the lyrics were just a way for him to vent his frustrations with the legal battle, Jeffries was convicted of communicating threats and sentenced to 18 months in jail.

The common thread running through all of these cases is the use of social media to voice frustration, grievances, and anger, sometimes using language that is overtly violent. The question the U.S. Supreme Court must now decide in Elonis is whether this activity, in the absence of any overt intention of committing a crime, rises to the level of a “true threat” or whether it is, as I would contend, protected First Amendment activity. (The Supreme Court has defined a “true threat” as “statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.”)

The internet and social media have taken the place of the historic public square, which has slowly been crowded out by shopping malls and parking lots. As such, these cyber “public squares” may be the only forum left for citizens to freely speak their minds and exercise their First Amendment rights, especially in the wake of legislation that limits access to our elected representatives. Unfortunately, the internet has become a tool for the government to monitor, control and punish the populace for behavior and speech that may be controversial but are far from criminal.

Indeed, the government, a master in the art of violence, intrusion, surveillance and criminalizing harmless activities, has repeatedly attempted to clamp down on First Amendment activity on the web and in social media under the various guises of fighting terrorism, discouraging cyberbullying, and combatting violence. Police and prosecutors have also targeted “anonymous” postings and messages on forums and websites, arguing that such anonymity encourages everything from cyber-bullying to terrorism, and have attempted to prosecute those who use anonymity for commercial or personal purposes.

We would do well to tread cautiously in how much authority we give the government to criminalize free speech activities and chill what has become a vital free speech forum. Not only are social media and the Internet critical forums for individuals to freely share information and express their ideas, but they also serve as release valves to those who may be angry, seething, alienated or otherwise discontented. Without an outlet for their pent-up anger and frustration, these thoughts and emotions fester in secret, which is where most violent acts are born.

In the same way, free speech in the public square—whether it’s the internet, the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court or a college campus—brings people together to express their grievances and challenge oppressive government regimes. Without it, democracy becomes stagnant and atrophied. Likewise, if free speech is not vigilantly protected, democracy is more likely to drift toward fear, repression, and violence. In such a scenario, we will find ourselves threatened with an even more pernicious injury than violence itself: the loss of liberty. In confronting these evils, more speech, not less, is the remedy.

OCALA, Fla. — In a resounding victory for the First Amendment, the City of Ocala, Fla., has affirmed that it will no longer object to a “Dont Tread On Me” flag displayed in front of a local sporting goods store. Ocala officials reversed their stance after being informed by attorneys for The Rutherford Institute that their flag ordinance policy and notice of violation to small business owners Keith and Hannah Greenberg constituted a content-based restriction on speech that patently violates the First Amendment. Ocala officials have also announced their intention to amend the ordinance, which bans most flags except those of the United States and State of Florida, in order to bring it in line with constitutional standards. The Greenbergs plan to resume flying the “Dont Tread On Me” flag in front of The Gear Barrel.

A Government of Wolves book cover“Living in a constitutional republic means that each person has the right to take a stand for what they think is right, whether that means marching outside the halls of government, wearing clothing with provocative statements, simply holding up a sign or flying a flag in front of their home or business,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “These kinds of cases speak to the citizenry’s right to express their concerns about their government to their government, in a time, place and manner best suited to ensuring that those concerns are heard. That’s what the First Amendment is all about, and I’m glad to see that the City of Ocala recognizes the value of this vital freedom.”

Keith and Hannah Greenberg lease property on Northeast 3rd Street in Ocala, Fla., and operate The Gear Barrel, a sporting goods store. In July 2014, the Greenbergs hung on a pole outside their store the “Gadsden Flag,” which depicts a yellow field bearing the image of a coiled snake and the words “Dont Tread on Me.” The Gadsden Flag was designed and used during the Revolutionary War and has been adopted recently as a popular symbol of discontent with the government. In September 2014, the Greenbergs received a letter from the City informing them that their property was in violation of the City’s sign ordinances and demanding that they cure the violation. Believing the notice related to another display at the property, the Greenbergs removed that display and Keith Greenberg called the City’s Code Enforcement Officer to advise him that the display had been removed. At that time, the Code Enforcement Officer told Keith that the outside display of the Gadsden Flag was also prohibited and that flag must also be removed. Keith was also told that flying a United States flag was not prohibited. Keith told the officer his liberty entitled him to fly the Gadsden Flag and he would not remove the flag. Thereafter, the City sent a Notice of Violation to the Greenbergs and their landlord demanding removal of the flag and informing them that they could be fined up to $500 per day for repeat violations. After consulting with their landlord, the Greenbergs removed the flag from outside the store in order to avoid the steep penalties threatened by the City.

In coming to the defense of the Greenbergs, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute demanded that the City’s threat to prosecute the couple be withdrawn. Institute attorneys also pointed out that the provisions of the City’s ordinances allowing only governmental and religious flags is patently in violation of the First Amendment because speech is permitted on the basis of the content of the speech. Affiliate attorney Robert A. McGlynn, Jr., P.A. assisted The Rutherford Institute in its defense of the Greenbergs’ First Amendment rights.