The New McCarthyism: Today, Speaking With the Wrong Group Can Get You 15 Years In Prison

Human Rights

At the beginning of the McCarthy Era, my great uncle Adrian Scott -- an acclaimed Hollywood producer and screenwriter -- was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to account for his political affiliations. Now sixty years later, when most of us want to believe that that kind of suppression is long behind us, the Supreme Court is about to consider how far we've really come. I believe we are retracing our most dangerous steps.

Adrian was one of the so-called "Hollywood Ten," a group of high-profile artists and entertainers who were the first of many called before Congress to explain their association with the Communist Party. He and nine colleagues chose to invoke their rights of freedom of speech and association. He stood up to HUAC, saying, "I do not believe it is proper for this committee to inquire into my personal relationships, my private relationships, my public relationships." For invoking his First Amendment rights, my great uncle spent nine months in jail. His Hollywood career was destroyed, he was forced to write under another name, and eventually he had to leave the United States entirely to find work.

The specter of McCarthyism is again hanging over America, but this time it has found a new name. Next week, the Court will hear Humanitarian Law Project v. Holder, a case that calls into question broad restrictions on speech. The lawsuit challenges parts of the Patriot Act that prohibit American citizens from speaking with groups said to be terrorists. The government argues that speaking with or on behalf of these groups can be seen as "material support." This is an eerily similar argument to the one made against Adrian during the Red Scare. I have heard family stories of screenwriters labeled communists for bringing food to a canned food drive loosely connected with the Communist Party. This kind of guilt by association is poison for a free society.

The Patriot Act's provisions go even further than the Hollywood blacklists that ended careers and forced an entire generation of talented artists, intellectuals, and activists into the ranks of the unemployed and exiled abroad. Now, speaking with the wrong group can get you fifteen years in federal prison.

The upcoming suit is brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Ralph Fertig, a civil rights lawyer and president of the Humanitarian Law Project, a nonprofit group that has a long history of mediating international conflicts. His organization hopes to do human rights trainings around the world to promote nonviolent conflict resolution -- but if he does so, he may be thrown in jail under the Patriot Act. It is a tragic irony that under the current law promoting nonviolence could get an American citizen imprisoned as a supporter of terrorism. Throwing Americans in jail for trying to convince terrorist groups to lay down their arms doesn't make us safer. It weakens our democracy.

Then as now, arguments for limiting civil liberties appeal to our fear. Today, our leaders argue, the threats to our safety are too large and the stakes are too high to allow people to associate with some groups. We look back on the Red Scare and condemn our parents' and grandparents' shortsightedness, having since learned that international communism was not the domestic threat they imagined. Yet it is important to remember that after World War II the threats seemed imminent and the fear was very real. Let us not ignore the lessons of history simply because the names have changed, but instead be taught by that unchanged fear. We must remember that a real concern for public safety and the possibility of imminent invasion motivated Senator McCarthy to condemn our artists and writers, and in the name of patriotism the House Committee on Un-American Activities said and did things we now consider definitely un-American. We cannot let a similar fear motivate similarly repressive action today. Then as now, there can be no need so expedient, no enemy so terrifying, to justify limiting our speech. That speech is the very substance of the society we fear for.

Former President Jimmy Carter agrees, and has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the upcoming case supporting Mr. Fertig. I also signed onto a brief in memory of my great uncle, and to urge the Court to remember the lessons of history.

I hope that the Court will heed this warning. The openness of our democracy depends on it.

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