Rights advocates target domestic terrorism bill in Senate

Privacy and civil liberties groups fear the measure could lead to the criminalization of beliefs.

Several privacy and civil liberties groups are taking aim at legislation targeted at preventing violent radicalization and homegrown terrorism inside the United States.

They fear that it could lead to the criminalization of beliefs, unconstitutional restrictions on speech, racial or religious profiling, and Internet censorship.

On the surface, the House-passed bill, H.R. 1955, may appear innocuous. It would create a commission to examine the causes of violent radicalization, homegrown terrorism and ideologically based violence in the United States, and would make legislative recommendations.

But groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and National Lawyers Guild argue that the bill's language is too broad and could lead to dangerous recommendations. They also say the language could set the stage for censoring the Internet.

"We are unable to envision a reformulation of this bill that would allow an organization dedicated to the principles of freedom of speech to offer its unqualified support," the ACLU said in a Nov. 21 letter to House Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee Chairwoman Jane Harman, D-Calif., the bill's sponsor.

The National Lawyer's Guild and the Society of American Law Teachers also issued a joint statement Tuesday, saying they "strongly oppose this legislation because it will likely lead to the criminalization of beliefs, dissent and protest, and invite more draconian surveillance of Internet communications."

Caroline Fredrickson, the ACLU's top Washington lobbyist, said in an interview that the bill should be geared toward targeted violent behavior, not speech or beliefs. Harman fired back late Wednesday by publicly releasing a letter she wrote to Fredrickson. Harman called the ACLU's position "confusing" because it is unlikely the group would support the bill even if changes were made to it.

"This makes me wonder why you took the time to suggest changes ... and, frankly, whether anything I and committee members have been saying for months is being heard," Harman wrote.

She added: "Because the House has passed [the bill], the focus now shifts to the Senate. But regardless of which chamber is involved, it seems counterproductive to invest more time in further meetings or negotiations when you have announced your steadfast opposition in advance."

Fredrickson said the ACLU worked with Harman and other House lawmakers over several months to make changes to the bill, but not all of them were incorporated. She added that the ACLU would want to see individuals with backgrounds in civil liberties, human rights, privacy and technology serve on the commission.

"I think Democrats need to understand that the ACLU is a nonpartisan organization," Fredrickson said. "We are going to be just as skeptical of Democratic proposals that infringe on civil liberties as we are with Republican proposals. We're an equal opportunity critic."

The ACLU is now focusing its strategy on the Senate, where Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee ranking Republican Susan Collins of Maine has introduced companion legislation, S. 1959. That bill has been referred to the committee.