Scholars and First Amendment advocates have criticized a homeland security proposal from Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri. The critics say it threatens protected free speech and assembly in ways not seen in decades, reports the Providence Journal. No other state, they said, has attempted such an encroachment on civil rights in the name of fighting terrorism. “It shocked me that anyone would try this,” said Lawrence E. Rothstein, a lawyer who teaches political science at the University of Rhode Island.
Carcieri wants to make it illegal in Rhode Island to “speak, utter, or print” statements in support of anarchy or government overthrow. He would make it unlawful for any person “to teach or advocate” a government overthrow, or display “any flag or emblem other than the flag of the United States” as preferable to the U.S. government. Both acts are clearly protected by the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from infringing on peaceful assembly, free speech, and the press..
“What Governor Carcieri proposes is to take the state of Rhode Island back 200 years,” said Paul McMasters of the Freedom Forum, based in Washington, D.C. “Dissent is at the heart of democratic freedoms. From Roger Williams on, Rhode Island has always been at the forefront of championing freedom of speech in general and political discourse specifically.”
Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, called the propoosals “a throwback to World War I.”
Carcieri’s bill would expand on two state laws, first enacted in 1919, that criminalize the advocacy of anarchy. Steven Brown of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, calls the 1919 laws “blatantly unconstitutional.” Similar laws have been struck down regularly, said Kirtley. “Anything that was designed to criminalize advocacy of the overthrow of the government was called into very serious question by the [U.S.] Supreme Court,” she said. “So that by the time of the 1960s or so, they had been pretty much stricken from American law because they so obviously represented an infringement on the First Amendment.”