Human Rights

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.

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.

"It's a tool of social and political control," he said. "If you have no other way of prosecuting demonstrations and discourse that are otherwise protected by the First Amendment, then you reach for the Anti-Riot Act."

Madison defended his actions in Pittsburgh, saying the information he stands accused of distributing was both factual and already available to the public. He also said there were at least 23 other Twitter feeds active during the protests.

Madison is intelligent, soft-spoken and clearly offended by the government's attacks on him and his family. An outspoken anarchist, he does not hide his beliefs. But contrary to the public's stereotype of anarchists as violent malcontents, Madison appears more prone to rambling than to causing trouble.

He says he did not take information overheard from a police scanner on the location of police and post it to Twitter, but admits that someone who was actually at one of the protests could have submitted such a post from his or her cell phone.

But even if Madison had done what the police allege, his lawyer said, he would be protected by the First Amendment.

"Twitter is no different than speech, no different than picking up the phone," Stolar said. "It's protected speech, especially something that the police have put out on the public airwaves."

What he did is really no different from what journalists do, Madison said. There were CNN crews reporting on the protests and movements of police as well, he said, and so his arrest sets a dangerous precedent for reporters.

"It's terrible for the media," he said. "The police are claiming we did the same as what CNN did."

Madison said that the government is persecuting him not only because of his outspoken beliefs but because of its inability to shut down Twitter and text messaging during the G20 Summit protests.

"They didn't understand the power of social networking," Madison said. "They thought that by arresting us the Twitter feeds would stop, but none of them did."

He had hoped the Obama administration would be more tolerant of dissent, especially after supporting protest movements in other countries, Madison said.

"But you can't stop people from communicating," he said. "And that's what really drives repressive governments really mad, so they strike back."

Madison will be in court in Pennsylvania on Nov. 17 for a preliminary hearing on charges of hindering prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility and possessing criminal instruments.

Eastern District Judge Dora Irizzarry will decide on Nov. 2 whether the property taken from Madison's house can be admissible as evidence before the federal grand jury.

The U.S. prosecutor in the case, Andrew Goldsmith, was not available for comment. Despite statements by prosecutors that police found books on poison and tire-spikes in his home, Madison said he does not think he will be indicted because he was doing nothing illegal.

"Since they didn't find anything in our house," Madison said, "I guess this will go on to the next house, and they'll fish for something there. That's how these things work."

Charles Mostoller is a student journalist and photographer enrolled at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. See his work at CharlesMostoller.com
Stay Ahead of the Rest
Sign Up for AlterNet's Daily Newsletter
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Rights & Liberties
Education
Drugs
Economy
Environment
Labor
Food
World
Politics
Investigation
Personal Health
Water
Media