Constitution

A well-known civil-rights advocate, John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, is challenging a plan in the Virginia legislature to create a state-endorsed “black list” for groups designated as domestic terrorists.

It’s because the state plan is all so unclear and vague.

For example, an organization with a loosely affiliated participant who throws a water bottle could find itself with the “terror” designation.

In Whitehead’s letter to the House of Delegates’ Courts of Justice Committee, he explained: “Almost any political organization would be in jeopardy of being designated ‘domestic terrorist organization’ given the breadth of the definition of ‘acts of domestic terrorism.’ A long list of offenses are deemed ‘acts of terrorism,’ including petty offenses such as misdemeanor assault, trespass, and damaging property on the land of another.”

He continued: “The proposed law goes on to make such trivial offenses acts of terrorism if done ‘for the purpose of restraining that person from exercising his rights under the Constitution or law of this Commonwealth or of the United States.’ Thus, the destruction of a political sign on the front yard of a home or throwing a plastic bottle at a protester one disagrees with could be considered ‘acts of domestic terrorism’ under the proposed law.”

He said the First Amendment would be endangered under the state’s plan, which was introduced by Delegate Marcia Price and drafted with the help of Attorney General Mark Herring.

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The proposal, H.B. 1601, broadly and vaguely defines “domestic terrorism” in such a way as to create a new criminal class of “domestic terrorist organizations” by labeling organizations that are even minimally affiliated with individuals engaged in so-called “acts of terrorism,” he explained.

“If you believe in and exercise your rights under the Constitution (namely, your right to speak freely, worship freely, associate with like-minded individuals who share your political views, criticize the government, demand a warrant before being questioned or searched, or any other activity viewed as potentially anti-government), that could be enough to land you on the federal government’s terrorism watch list,” Whitehead said.

“Now, under this proposed Virginia law, just associating with someone labeled a ‘domestic terrorist’ is enough to get an organization blacklisted,” he said. “People have forgotten that in his day, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was viewed as a domestic terrorist for his acts of civil disobedience. Under this law, which aims to demonize and criminalize organizations based on their social or political associations with individuals whose unpopular beliefs or anti-government sentiments may be construed as ‘terrorist,’ organizations associated with King would be labeled as domestic terrorists and blacklisted. This is about as McCarthyist and un-American as it gets.”

The proposal is the reaction by Price and Herring to the August 2017 violence in Charlottesville during which far-right activists staged a protest, and far-left activists were allowed to confront them.

The legislation, which remains under review by the committee, also, according to Whitehead, is too broad.

The proposal would make “an organization or association a terrorist organization if its ‘members individually … have engaged in the commission of, attempt to commit, conspiracy to commit, or solicitation of two or more acts of domestic terrorism.'”

“Under this provision, an organization or association can be designated a terrorist organization not simply for offenses it collectively plans or participates in, but for acts committed by a member individually, regardless of whether the organization participated in or condoned the offense,” the letter said.

That conflicts, he explained, with Supreme Court rulings that make clear that the right to associated does not lose all constitutional protection “merely because some members of the group may have participated in conduct … that itself is not protected.”

Also, he pointed out, state officials give groups the “domestic terrorist” label after secret proceedings.

And the legal ban on “material support” for designated groups goes so far that printers, restaurants, motels and even banks or cell phone companies would be considered liable, he said.

“While the Commonwealth certainly can prohibit conspiracies to commit violence and other criminal acts and restrict the ability of others to knowingly provide support for such unlawful actis, it cannot prevent orgainzaitons from engaging in constitutionally protected activities or common activities of commerce.”

The bill, therefore, should be rejected, he asserted.

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