Terrorism Law Could Restrict Speech

By: Todd Shields

The anti-terrorism bill that President Bush signed Friday could restrict free speech, according to some First Amendment advocates.

Both houses of Congress, in votes Wednesday and Thursday, gave overwhelming support to the measure aimed at investigating terrorists. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft promised to use the new powers vigorously.

Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum, called the new eavesdropping powers “troublesome.”

“When American citizens suspect someone is looking over their shoulder … not only is their speech chilled, their willingness to talk to the press is lessened,” McMasters said.

McMasters pointed to the Justice Department’s secret subpoena of an Associated Press reporter’s telephone records this year, and said he feared officials might abuse their new wiretap authority.

Al Cross, a columnist for The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., who is president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the new law “enhances the disturbing climate we’ve seen develop in past months.” Such developments include an Ashcroft memorandum urging federal agencies to be cautious in fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the legislation creates a broad new definition of domestic terrorism that could result in wiretaps targeting people engaged in political protest.

Speaking in support of an organization that the attorney general deems to be terrorist could be forbidden, said ACLU President Nadine Strossen: “Even an editorial that supports [a designated group’s] lawful actions comes under the ambit of this legislation.”

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