Terror v. Freedom

by Chris Daly 

A trial taking place in U.S. District Court in Boston deserves more attention than it has been getting. This is a criminal trial, pitting the United States government (in the form of the U.S. Justice Dept) against one of its citizens (in the person of Tarek Mehanna, of suburban Sudbury).

In brief, the government accuses Mehanna of some sort of involvement with terrorism, more specifically jihad.

What I cannot find in any of the documents I have been able to track down or in the news accounts of the prosecutors’ statements is any evidence of any specific criminal action taken by the suspect. The only evidence has to do with allegations of speech, writing, translation, and Web-posting.

Any time the government attempts to criminalize speech rather than actions, that should concern all of us who care about the First Amendment and  the freedom to speak and publish.

Granted, there are some gray areas in law. One has to do with conspiracy. If you speak to your fellow criminals in the planning of a crime, that could be a crime. That is one reason that conspiracy is such a standby of prosecutors. Another gray area involving speech and crime involves the legal doctrine of incitement, which can be extended to such areas as hate speech and “fighting words.” If you use words to directly encourage someone else to commit a crime or to provoke them, you may be guilty of inciting the commission of a crime. I would acknowledge that those are varieties of speech that might, in limited circumstances, justify the criminalization of certain kinds of speech.

In the case of Tarek Mehanna, the evidence presented thus far does not look all that compelling. He may have attempted to conspire with Al Qaeda, but they appear to have given him the brush-off. (Is there such a crime as attempted conspiracy?) He may also have attempted to incite his co-religionists to rise up and slay the infidels, but they appear to have ignored him. (Is there such a crime as attempted incitement?)

One odd feature of the case is that the government has not been very forthcoming in providing documents. Neither the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston nor the U.S. District Court is making it easy for citizens to follow along. Neither is Mehanna’s able defense attorney, Jay Carney.

So far, the biggest trove of documents has been  posted by an outfit that calls itself “Free Tarek.” So, as always, consider the source.

To be continued. . .

 

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