Minnesota Sen. Dave Kleis, R-St. Cloud, proposed a bill to establish a new provision under the crime of Aiding an Offender, written in response to the recent Animal Liberation Front attack on University research labs. Kleis’ proposal is well-intended, but ultimately goes too far.
The bill does two main things. First, it increases the penalty for those found guilty of terrorism or violent criminal behavior to three times the actual amount of damages inflicted. This aspect of the bill is fine — terrorist actions should be punished more harshly than normal destruction of property.
It is the second portion of the bill that is problematic. The bill would make it a “gross misdemeanor to promote, advocate and claim responsibility for terrorism and violent criminal behavior after the fact.” Most of this makes sense. If a group claims responsibility for illegal acts, it is logical that the group faces consequences for those acts. However, advocating an act — giving support merely through speech — should not be illegal.
Sen. Kleis says that this aspect of the bill is targeted at individuals like Kevin Kjonaas, an ALF spokesman. The problem is that Kjonaas did not commit any acts of terrorism. He is not a member of ALF and there is no evidence he knows the names of the individuals who committed the vandalism. He has, however, spoken in support of the actions of ALF. If Kjonaas refused to give information to the police, or if there were evidence he collaborated with ALF, he should be arrested. But he has only spoken and it is wrong to imprison him simply for his views. It goes against the intent of the First Amendment.
The goal of the First Amendment is to protect speech — not just popular speech, but also speech that is extremely unpopular. It is usually easy to convince people speech supporting fringe ideas should be limited. However, the most important thing to consider when attempting to punish speech is what the worst possible outcome could be.
Most people might have absolutely no problem arresting Kevin Kjonaas for his support of actions of ALF. Yet, would they also support jailing someone who speaks in support of the Irish Republican Army’s terrorist tactics? Would they be pleased if a professor who said Black Panther actions in the 1960s were beneficial to the cause of civil rights was arrested?
According to the Supreme Court, people who create racist graffiti cannot be punished more than those who produce normal graffiti. This ruling was not made because the Supreme Court supports racism, but instead because the court understands that it is fundamentally wrong to punish speech. Once we punish a certain kind of speech, it becomes much easier to punish another. We might all accept punishing Ku Klux Klan members for advocating violence against blacks or those who support ALF’s actions, but the line becomes less clear when we consider those who preach against homosexuality or abortion rights.
It is very doubtful that Sen. Kleis’ intent was to write a bill that would weaken the First Amendment. However, if the bill passes, those who support unpopular actions merely through speech could be fined and jailed. The Minnesota Senate should reject the bill. It means well, but that is not a good enough reason to disregard our commitment to free speech.