When Did Tweeting Become a Felony Under Federal Law?

| by Rutherford Institute

Say you want a revolution.
We better get on right away.
Well you get on your feet
And out on the street.

--John Lennon, "Power to the People"

The ominous rise of the surveillance state continues unabated. With each passing day, hope fades that the Obama administration will diverge from George W. Bush's erection of a police state.

The government's treatment of Elliot Madison is a case in point. Madison, a 41-year-old self-styled anarchist and social worker, was arrested on September 24, 2009, and charged with violating a federal anti-rioting law. Madison allegedly listened to a police scanner (which, according to The New York Times, is legal) and blogged about it on Twitter to help fellow protesters avoid law enforcement at the G-20 summit taking place in Pittsburgh that same month. (Ironically, just months earlier, the U.S. government called Twitter a boon to democracy after Iranian protesters used it to organize anti-government rallies.)

One week later, agents with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force raided Madison's Brooklyn home, seizing computers, books and papers, along with other assorted items, including his marriage license, Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs and a needlepoint depiction of Lenin. The list of what was taken stretches for pages.

All of this over a few Tweets? After all, Madison's tactics are fairly common these days. Monitoring police communications and movements during protests is one of the few means average citizens have in attempting to level the playing field against the pervasive surveillance tools of law enforcement agencies.

The police possess all manner of invasive and coercive technological devices at their disposal, which they used on protesters at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. As The New York Times reported, during the protest, "heavily armed police officers reacted to the anti-globalization protesters with tear gas, sonic weapons, rubber bullets and mass arrests." Sound cannons--which are suspected of causing damage to eardrums and perhaps even fatal aneurysms--were also used to disperse protesters.

Unfortunately, as Ryan Singel writes for Wired, "The federal anti-rioting statute is serious business, and is seemingly easy to violate. For instance, it is a felony 'to organize, promote, encourage, participate in, or carry on a riot; or [...] to aid or abet any person in inciting or participating in [...] a riot.' By that token, simply telling a person fleeing cops with batons which way to run makes you a felon. One wonders how the Southern Christian Leadership Council and Martin Luther King, Jr. would have fared under that law, when he was in a Birmingham jail, writing letters urging people to support the direct-action program of sit-ins and marches. Those protesters were later attacked by police using dogs and fire hoses on the orders of Birmingham Sheriff Bull Connor."

Similarly, John Lennon could have been charged under this law for his "Power to the People" lyrics, which urged people to take to the streets and start a revolution. Truth be told, I could just as easily be charged under this vague law for the many commentaries I've written over the years urging Americans to take to the streets as well to stand and fight for their rights.

The point is that it no longer matters what your particular gripe is, whether you're an anarchist, a tree hugger, a Tea Party protester, or something else altogether. The government is sending a clear message that Elliot Madison is not the exception but the rule: this is what happens to people who disagree with the government and act on it. They are targeted, tracked, placed under surveillance and, if they happen to violate any arcane laws, made examples of.

The U.S. government is an expert when it comes to spying on its citizens. Information is being covertly collected about every aspect of our lives and is being secretly sifted and analyzed in vast data storage facilities, far from the gaze of public scrutiny. The highly secretive National Security Agency (NSA), for instance, possesses unprecedented powers to spy on our communications. Since 9/11, the telecommunications industry has worked with the NSA to allow the agency to screen data for key names and words, giving it the power to monitor email, texts and calls for "suspicious activity." Its data centers elsewhere examine credit card activity, parking tickets, bookstore visits and other activity to establish patterns and monitor citizens' behavior.

As the intelligence services cast their nets ever-wider in an attempt to shore-up their watch lists and look for suspicious activity, it's destroying our constitutional rights to privacy. And police tactics are eradicating our First Amendment rights to peacefully assemble, protest and speak our minds.

Moreover, what was once considered a peaceful protester is now, because of government paranoia, considered an extremist. A report produced by the Department of Homeland Security in April 2009 cast a wide net in its classification of "extremists" to include those on the right-- such as those who "reject federal authority in favor of state or local authority" and oppose issues like abortion or immigration--and left-leaning "extremists" such as animal and environmental rights groups and anarchists. Furthermore, the report uses the labels "terrorist" and "extremist" interchangeably. In other words, when citizens such as Elliot Madison voice what the government considers to be extremist viewpoints, that is tantamount to being a terrorist.

Unfortunately, it's not just the federal government that Americans need to worry about. State police agencies are also getting in on the action. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the Maryland State Police had been conducting extensive surveillance on activists who were considered "terrorists." Among these, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals were reportedly considered a security threat due to concerns that they might disrupt the circus; consumers fighting a 72% electricity rate were looked at with suspicion; the DC Anti-War Network, which opposes the Iraq War, "was designated a white supremacist group, without explanation"; and among the possible wrongs committed by Amnesty International, a well-known human rights group, was the so-called crime of "civil rights."

Clearly, freedom of thought and conscience are at serious risk today from federal and state agencies intent on suppressing actions they deem to be a threat to the status quo. It all adds up to an Orwellian government that would like nothing better than to dictate what we can think, read and believe. The thought police are not that far away.