Coronado’s Free Speech Trial Starts Today

by Will Potter on September 10, 2007

in Terrorism Court Cases

Rod Coronado heads back to federal court today, in what could become (like many of these “Green Scare” prosecutions) a landmark First Amendment case. Coronado, a longtime environmental and animal advocate– and convicted arsonist– faces 20 years in prison for answering a question at one of his lectures about an incendiary device he created. (Here’s a previous post with more information on Coronado, and the case.)

At a speech in San Diego, someone in the audience asked how Coronado committed an arson years ago in the name of animal rights and the environment. He grabbed a plastic container from a table and said he used a bottle like that one, filled with gasoline and attached to a timer, then went to the next question. He’s charged with “distribution of information relating to explosives, destructive devices and weapons of mass destruction.”

In my mind there are two major civil liberties issues here:

  • Weakening First Amendment protections for controversial speech. One standard courts use to evaluate controversial, inflammatory speech is if it would lead to “imminent lawless action” (like if activists start yelling “burn it down!” outside a government building and they really do mean, well, burn it down, right then and there). In other words, activists have a right to talk about how they believe property destruction is okay, but not if it could lead to such imminent lawless action.

    In this case, Coronado was answering a question at a community forum. Yep, he’s committed arsons, years ago. Now, he’s actually renounced the tactics (and upset some segments of the environmental and animal rights movement in the process). In light of this, it’s doubtful that answering that question was meant to incite someone to run out of the lecture and burn something down.

  • Selective prosecution. Make no mistake, Coronado is an extremely visible, and notorious, icon of the animal rights and environmental movements. It’s not too surprising that the government has singled him out as some kind of poster boy for “eco-terrorism.” Feds have gone after him relentlessly, for less “radical” infractions like non-violent civil disobedience and possessing eagle feathers. Yet feds are not going after folks like “eco-terrorism” pioneer Rod Arnold, who gave a similar explanation about incendiary devices on Fox News (thanks to Jessica for sending me that link). And feds aren’t going after Ed Bradley, who actually made contact with Animal Liberation Front activists (I guess if you’re high profile enough, prosecutors won’t use grand juries won’t harass you to “name names”).

Ron Grossman at The Chicago Tribune has a very fair look at the case in today’s edition. He reports:

Yet Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago, notes that — without presuming to prejudge Coronado’s guilt or innocence — the fact is that the 1st Amendment tends to get overlooked in tumultuous times.

“But I like to think we learn from our mistakes and try to correct them,” he said. “When civil liberties are at stake, there’s a regular cycle: fear, repression and repentance.”

Grossman goes on to note similar cycles in U.S. history, including the framing of the Haymarket anarchists, the Red Scare, and yep he even notes the “Green Scare.”

The cyclical nature that Geoffrey Stone mentioned— fear, repression, repentance—is certainly historically accurate. But I think we all need to be careful about falling into the trap of thinking that this has always happened, and therefore it always will happen. That cycle isn’t inevitable or preordained: it’s created. It depends on fear. In this case, fear of terrorism, fear that has increased since the 9/11 attacks and the war in Iraq. The fear is being manufactured, it’s being carefully crafted by people who have a vested interest in maintaining that cycle of repression. And if we buy into the idea that “in wartime freedoms will always be curtailed,” history will continue to repeat itself.

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