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Sunday, October 19, 2003

DOJ And Greenpeace Go To Court

The Department of Justice will go to trial later this month to prosecute the radical environmental organization Greenpeace. Using an odd and arcane maritime law that forbids persons from boarding a ship unlawfully, the Justice Department is now breaking new ground by prosecuting the entire organization for an act committed by four Greenpeace members. Very little seems to be written about this case but it bares watching. In April 2002, two Greenpeace members illegally boarded a ship from Brazil that, according to Greenpeace, was illegally importing mahogany wood from South America into the United States. Using a tried and true method of civil disobidience, the enviro activists boarded the ship and attempted to hang a banner off of it reading "President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging." Theywere later arrested and eventually pled to misdemeanor infractions. Then months later the Justice Department decided that was not enough and has invoked an old, arcane law. A law so obscure that constitutional and other legal scholars can not find a citing for its last use. Acording to Greenpeace, " the 18th-century law is designed to prevent unscrupulous boarding house proprietors from luring arriving sailors to their establishments." Using this law, the Justice Department has pressed charges against Greenpeace Inc. The organization faces a statutory maximum penalty of five years' probation and a fine of $10,000 as well as the potential loss of its tax exempt status and thus its ultimate demise. If convicted, it would have to report its activities to the government and get approval for all of its actions - a scary thought if it comes to pass. I don't get most of the Greenpeace agenda and have always questioned the effectiveness of chaining yourself to a tree or using a tiny rowboat to stop merchant vessels carrying oil or other cargo while traveling in shipping lanes. But the government's whole-hearted attempt to shut up one of the current administration's loudest dissenters is chilling. And yes, the law, as arcane and untried as it may be, is the law and perhaps has clearly been broken. But in this case, so what. Until now, that particular law has been ignored for over a hundred years. And I can only imagine that any other groups who attempt, through acts of civil disobedience, to defy the government will be facing a similar ominous fate. But is it really a just Justice Department that attacks the use of free speech by destroying the organizations and people who dare defy them? Scary stuff. (Not wholey unrelated: no charges to date have been filed against The Enron corporation. )