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How Could It Be Against the Law to Spread Public Information?

An activist shared on Twitter what he heard on his police scanner, and now faces serious federal investigation.
 
 
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The hazmat team rushed into Elliot Madison's home in Queens, N.Y., and headed straight for the kombucha tea brewing in a corner, assuming that the outspoken anarchist was concocting a chemical weapon.

Now Madison, 41 -- who is under investigation by a federal grand jury for violations of a rarely used anti-riot statute -- has denounced the probe as politically motivated and in violation his constitutional rights.

Madison was arrested on Sept. 24 at a hotel outside Pittsburgh, accused under Pennsylvania law of aiding protesters at the G20 Summit by listening to a police scanner and then sending out Twitter feeds on the location of police, helping protesters to avoid arrest.

Madison denied any wrongdoing and said his use of Twitter is speech protected by the First Amendment. His lawyer said that Madison is being persecuted for his beliefs and activism.

"It's purely political," his lawyer, Martin R. Stolar, said. "The government is trying to say that anarchists are the equivalents of terrorists, just like it is trying to say that protesters are the equivalents of terrorists."

On Oct. 16, a federal grand jury in the Brooklyn Eastern District Court announced a separate investigation into Madison -- an outspoken proponent of anarchism and political dissent -- for violations of the Anti-Riot Act.

The act was first used to prosecute Abbie Hoffman and the Chicago Seven after protests at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 and has rarely been used since.

One of the lawyers who defended the Chicago Seven in court 40 years ago, Leonard I. Weinglass, said the government's attempt to silence social-media communication by demonstrators at the G20 protests was hypocritical.

"In Iran, demonstrators were lauded for using it," he said. "Now that it is being used here for identical purposes it is being criminalized."

The FBI and a joint terrorism task force searched Madison's Jackson Heights home on Oct. 3 for over 16 hours. Agents scoured the property and took dozens of items, including books on anarchism written by Madison, political posters, an antique gas mask, his marriage certificate and a Curious George plush doll.

Stolar has filed an injunction for the return of the property, saying that the warrant was too broad in scope and as such violates Madison's Fourth Amendment rights. The warrant authorized police to seize any evidence of violations of the Anti-Riot Act.

"A warrant is supposed to tell them what they're supposed to take," Madison said. "That is why our Founding Fathers put it in, because they didn't like that the English would use 'Crown warrants,' where they could go in and look for anything they wanted."

Madison said the officers who searched his home had no idea what they were looking for.

"They would point to something, like 'Do we take this Curious George plush toy?' and another would say, 'Yes take it,'" he said.

Stolar also questioned the constitutionality of the Anti-Riot Act itself, which was added into the Civil Rights Act of 1968 in response to the race riots of the mid-1960s and has only been used a few times in the early 1970s to prosecute political activists.

"It's a law that basically targets people who are involved in protests," he said. "Nobody even knows what the law means."

The law itself is vague. It prohibits traveling in "interstate or foreign commerce … with intent to incite a riot" or to "aid or abet any person in inciting or participating in or carrying on a riot."

Weinglass, who is also a lawyer for the Cuban Five and was once Mumia Abu Jamal's counsel, said that the act is essentially a prohibition on a "state of mind" and directed at those who protest the policies of government.

 
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