Last week, the federal government took another troubling step towards criminalizing dissent with the indictment of four left-wing black nationalists and three Russians for, allegedly, sowing discord and spreading Russian propaganda. The Russians supposedly recruited the Americans to act as illegal agents of the Kremlin. That’s a charge meant to draw on the Russkies-under-the-bed panic of recent years, and one that echoes similar prosecutions by authoritarian regimes of overseas activists who receive American money. The move is hypocritical and dangerous to our liberty.
“A federal grand jury in Tampa, Florida, returned a superseding indictment charging four U.S. citizens and three Russian nationals with working on behalf of the Russian government and in conjunction with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) to conduct a multi-year foreign malign influence campaign in the United States,” the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) announced last week. “Among other conduct, the superseding indictment alleges that the Russian defendants recruited, funded and directed U.S. political groups to act as unregistered illegal agents of the Russian government and sow discord and spread pro-Russian propaganda; the indicted intelligence officers, in particular, participated in covertly funding and directing candidates for local office within the United States.”
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Isn’t That Free Speech?
The arrested Americans are activists with “the African People’s Socialist Party and the Uhuru Movement (collectively, the APSP) in Florida, Black Hammer in Georgia and a political group in California (referred to in the superseding indictment as U.S. Political Group 3)” which are organizations with exactly the politics you’d expect from their names. The APSP touts its efforts “to lead the struggle of the African working class and oppressed masses against U.S. capitalist-colonialist domination and all the manifestations of oppression and exploitation that result from this relationship.” Which is to say that, like the message or not, the organization and its members engage in harsh criticism of the United States government and its policies, including of American support for Ukraine in its defensive war against Russia, that is strictly protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
“The Supreme Court has long considered political and ideological speech to be at the core of the First Amendment, including speech concerning ‘politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion,'” the Congressional Research Service emphasized in 2019. “A government regulation that implicates political or ideological speech generally receives strict scrutiny in the courts, whereby the government must show that the law is narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.”
Nevertheless, much reporting on the indictments focuses on what the APSP and allied organizations say.
“A federal grand jury has charged three St. Louis residents with illegally pushing pro-Russian propaganda and misinformation about Ukraine and sowing discord across Missouri, Georgia and Florida through the African People’s Socialist Party,” St. Louis Public Radio reported.
Pro-Russian propaganda? Misinformation about Ukraine? That’s protected speech (and open to debate). According to the DOJ, the illegality occurred when the indicted Americans—Omali Yeshitela, Penny Joanne Hess, Jesse Nevel, and Augustus C. Romain Jr.—were given funding by Russians Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, Aleksey Borisovich Sukhodolov, and Yegor Sergeyevich Popov. Natalia Burlinova (who is being separately charged) identified Americans who “had expressed positive attitudes towards Russia and were prepared to continue to collaborate” and so were candidates for support.
“Ionov, Sukhodolov, Popov, Yeshitela, Hess, Nevel and Romain are charged with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government within the United States without providing prior notification to the Attorney General, as required by law,” huffs the DOJ.
But the U.S. government supports sympathetic overseas activists all the time, and people rightly complain when they’re targeted for punishment for receiving dollars to further their efforts.
America’s Own Foreign Agents
“The Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal represents a significant, targeted expansion of U.S. Government efforts to defend, sustain, and grow democratic resilience with likeminded governmental and non-governmental partners,” the Biden administration announced on December 9, 2021. The initiative included $424.4 million for support of independent media in other countries, “anti-corruption change agents,” “historically marginalized groups,” and “activists, workers, and reform-minded leaders.” The program just received another $690 million.
That’s on top of the 40-year-old National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which “is dedicated to fostering the growth of a wide range of democratic institutions abroad, including political parties, trade unions, free markets and business organizations, as well as the many elements of a vibrant civil society that ensure human rights, an independent media, and the rule of law.” Nominally non-governmental, the NED boasts it is “funded largely by the U.S. Congress.”
Sometimes, the U.S. (and Russia) directly interfere in other countries’ politics, such as the Italian elections of 1948. As you might expect, supporting organizations and activists abroad does breed resentment even when it’s for the best reasons.
You Know Who Else Doesn’t Like Foreign Agents? Russia!
“Two courts in Russia ruled against that country’s leading human rights organization,” NPR noted in 2021 of the closure of 30-year-old Memorial. “Russia’s High Court issued a decision to force the liquidation of the group for so-called violations of foreign agents laws.”
“For the past four years, the Kremlin has sought to stigmatize criticism or alternative views of government policy as disloyal, foreign-sponsored, or even traitorous,” Human Rights Watch cautioned in 2018. “An enduring, central feature has been the 2012 law requiring independent groups to register as ‘foreign agents’ if they receive any foreign funding and engage in broadly defined ‘political activity.'”
Russian-Style Muzzling in the U.S.A.
The United States Department of Justice is prosecuting critics of government policy in 2023 using the exact same “foreign agent” excuse brandished by the Russian government against its critics. It’s a sketchy way of criminalizing dissent by penalizing activists for having advocates and allies overseas.
Presumably, the DOJ would argue that it’s going after bad pro-Russian propaganda spread by the APSP, while the Russians were going after good pro-human rights messaging.
“Russia’s foreign intelligence service allegedly weaponized our First Amendment rights—freedoms Russia denies its own citizens—to divide Americans and interfere in elections in the United States,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said in a sniffy statement. “The department will not hesitate to expose and prosecute those who sow discord and corrupt U.S. elections in service of hostile foreign interests, regardless of whether the culprits are U.S. citizens or foreign individuals abroad.”
The whole idea behind protections for free speech, let’s emphasize, is that governments can’t be trusted to distinguish good speech from bad speech. Officials don’t like criticism, so protecting our rights requires that we not let them restrict our ability to say unkind things about them.
But now, we have the United States Department of Justice emulating the Kremlin in smearing government critics as foreign agents. What interesting times these are.