Counterterrorism Efforts Must Not Infringe On First Amendment Rights, ACLU Testifies

December 15, 2009 12:53 pm

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

CONTACT: (202) 675-2312 or

WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union testified today before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment. The hearing, “Violent Extremism: How Are People Moved from Constitutionally-Protected Thought to Acts of Terrorism,” was meant to consider where counterterrorism efforts intended to prevent violence and radicalization cross the line into punishing radical, but protected, thought.

“It is crucial to understand the importance of zealously safeguarding our constitutionally-protected freedoms while we strive to understand how individuals become violent extremists,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, Acting Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “While we recognize that our government has an obligation to protect us from terrorism, Congress must tread carefully when attempting to examine people’s thoughts or classify their beliefs as inside or outside the mainstream. We must avoid infringing on fundamental rights that are essential to the functioning of a healthy democracy.”

Asking whether extremist ideology is a harbinger of violence presumes that a connection exists between the belief system and the commission of violence. Recent empirical studies of terrorism downplay such a causal connection. To blindly assume without evidence that those of a particular faith or ideology are a threat because of the actions of a few betrays American values and wastes security resources.

In its testimony, the ACLU also pointed to past examples of government overreaction in its testimony, recalling Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which ruined the careers of many loyal Americans based purely on their associations, and the failed FBI domestic counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO).

COINTELPRO quickly evolved from a legitimate effort to protect the national security from hostile foreign threats into an effort to suppress domestic political dissent through an array of illegal activities. The “Church Committee” investigated the program and found that an “unexpressed major premise of… COINTELPRO is that the Bureau has a role in maintaining the existing social order, and that its efforts should be aimed toward combating those who threaten that order.” Time and again we have found that instead of focusing on violations of law, investigations targeting people based on their beliefs, political activities and associations are doomed to fail.

“Sacrificing our civil liberties in the pursuit of security is unwise, unnecessary, and according to several recent studies, counterproductive to preventing extremist violence,” said Macleod-Ball. “Fear should not drive our government policies. To truly be safe and free, we must vigorously protect our Constitution and values.”

To read the ACLU’s testimony, go to:

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release