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Protesters marched in Chicago during the NATO summit in May 2012.

Attorneys and activists say Illinois terrorism law is chilling free speech

by Sarah Devin Kaufman
May 08, 2013

Attorneys and activists say Illinois law is chilling free speech by defining legal activism as illegal terrorism.

The argument is being made on behalf of three men charged under Illinois’ terrorism law in connection with protests at last year’s NATO gathering in Chicago.

Thomas Durkin, who represents one of the three men accused of terrorism last year at the NATO summit in Chicago, thinks the government has gone too far in accusing activists of being terrorists. The definition of terrorism in the Illinois Terrorist Act is not specific enough to be accurate or constitutional, Durkin argued.

The Illinois Terrorism Act defines a terrorist as someone, “with the intent to intimidate or coerce a significant portion of the population.”

Durkin’s defendant, Jared Chase, and two other men, Brent Betterly and Brian Church, are accused of planning to attack President Obama’s house with Molotov cocktails.

Durkin and the People’s Law Office, a Chicago-based group of civil rights attorneys, filed a motion in March to dismiss charges against the defendants arguing that the language used in the Illinois Terrorism Act was too vague.

“I have no clue what that language means, and I don’t think anyone else does either,” Durkin said.

Cook County Criminal Court Judge Thaddeus Wilson denied the motion, but Durkin said “It is still impossible to achieve a fair trial when a defendant is charged with so-called terrorism.”

Durkin said security at the March 27 hearing was overbearing with deputies in bullet-proof vests following the defendants because the word terrorism had been applied to the case.

Because his defendant, Chase, was charged with terrorism it created what Durkin called “a chilling effect” that is an infringement upon Chase’s right to free speech.

“We’re beginning to see a lot of civil liberties erosions from the war on terror that I don’t think we will ever regain,” Durkin said.

Other experts disagree that the language used in the Illinois Terrorism Act is too vague.

“To intimidate or coerce is not vague when coupled with the word terrorism,” said Chicago Kent Law Professor Steven Heyman.

“This is not the best drafted statute in the world,” Heyman said, “but it probably does give an ordinary person fair notice of what is being prohibited.”

Heyman said the government sometimes exaggerates the nature of charges brought against potential terrorists. “But the issue at stake is whether the government can prove the defendants did what they are being accused of,” he said.

Despite new fears about terrorism following the recent bombing attacks during the Boston Marathon, Americans’ concerns about the government encroaching on their civil liberties are on the rise, according to a poll released last week.

The TIME/CNN/ORC poll found 61 percent of Americans were more concerned with new anti-terrorism policies that might restrict civil liberties than they were with the government failing to enact new strong anti-terrorism initiatives.

Forty-nine percent of Americans said they were not willing to give up civil liberties if it were necessary to curb terrorism. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Activist and founder of the DePaul University Anti-Capitalist Coalition Erez Bleicher, who protested outside the NATO summit last year, said he and fellow activists were demonized by Chicago law enforcement as potential terrorists. He said law enforcement equated activism with terrorism to justify a huge police presence.

“Associating domestic activists with an image of international terrorism is meant to create an environment of fear,” Bleicher said. “This fear then legitimizes extreme forms of coercion and violence against domestic activists.”

Bleicher said he witnessed officers attacking protesters to forcefully remove them from the premises after the protest’s permit expired. “Police were highly militarized, and protesters had no weaponry.”

According to Durkin, the current terrorism statute in Illinois puts an enormous amount of power in the prosecutor’s hands.

“When the prosecutor uses the statute it creates an incredibly different atmosphere, in addition to more punishment. Heavy protection and bulletproof vests in the court room is just one example,” he said.

“Jared Chase is simply not a terrorist by anybody’s definition,” he said. “If these guys are terrorists then we can all sleep well at night.”

Chase, Betterly and Church are scheduled for trial in mid-September.