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2004-02-10

Federal Gov’t Subpoenas College for Info on Peace Activists

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The government has subpoenaed Drake University in Iowa to hand over information about who organized and who attended a National Lawyers Guild anti-war forum in November. Lawyers say they have not seen such subpoenas since the McCarthy era. [Includes transcript]

On November 15 of last year, Drake University in Iowa hosted a forum titled "Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home!" 21 people attended.

At the time the forum received little attention anywhere outside of the school’s campus.

But that all changed last week, nearly three months after the fact.

That’s when the federal government issued a subpoena to Drake University asking for information on who attended the meeting and for detailed information on the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild which sponsored the forum.

In addition, four anti-war protesters who attended the forum were also subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury which was originally scheduled to convene today.

The subpoenas have sent a chill through the activist movement.

Georgetown law professor David Cole told the New York Times "I’ve heard of such a thing, but not since the 1950’s, the McCarthy era. It sends a very troubling message about government officials’ attitudes toward basic liberties."

The government has said little about the inquiry but claims it is simply trying to learn more about an individual who they claimed tried to scale a security fence at an Iowa National Guard based in a protest a day after the forum.

  • Michael Avery, president of the National Lawyers Guild.

TRANSCRIPT

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AMY GOODMAN: We are joined by Michael Avery, who is the president of The National Lawyers’ Guild. What’s going on here? Michael?

MICHAEL AVERY: Yes. Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Good to have you with us.

MICHAEL AVERY: Thank you. We have moved to quash the subpoena to Drake University, and the lawyers’ guild has filed papers complaining that this violates our first amendment rights, and is in interference with the right of free association.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain, though, why this Iowa anti-war conference? I mean, there have been thousands of them around the country. Michael Avery?

MICHAEL AVERY: Yes. Yes. I’m having trouble hearing you, Amy, because of the background. I’m sorry. But the government has tried in variety of ways to demonize dissent in this country and to intimidate people from participating in organizations that are involved in protesting government policies. Historically, the government has used the grand jury for this purpose, and this is an example of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are the people that have been subpoenaed, and will they comply?

MICHAEL AVERY: A number of local peace activists have been subpoenaed to talk about the demonstration, and then Drake University itself has been subpoenaed. So far, the indications we have received are that Drake intends to comply with this subpoena, so we have intervened in the case to assert our own interests. We’re also asking Drake to stand up for academic freedom here and to stand up for the right of people to meet and discuss and debate ideas, and to dissent and to protect our rights in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: What would happen if someone refused to testify before grand jury?

MICHAEL AVERY: If somebody refuses to testify before a grand jury and asserts the Fifth Amendment, they don’t have to testify. However, what the government does, if they want to really pressure that person, is to offer them immunity from prosecution. And then, if someone continues to refuse to testify, they are jailed until they finally agree to testify or until the grand jury expires, which can be along as 18 months. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, of course, a number of people did that and were held for long periods of time. The problem is that the government is only supposed to use the grand jury to investigate crimes, but in fact, it often uses it for other purposes, such as intimidating and harassing people who are involved in political organizations.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the individual they said scaled a security fence at an Iowa National Guard base in protest the day after the forum?

MICHAEL AVERY: There were a number of people in Iowa who had committed civil disobedience at this protest demonstration, but it was a very peaceful sort of civil disobedience for the most part. These were Quakers or Catholic Worker members who went there intending to get arrested to make their point. The government now wants to label that as terrorism, and anti-terrorism task force is now investigating both the event and the lawyers’ guild meeting the day before. This is an example of what weave seen from the government where it ratchets up to the level of terrorism what in the ordinary course is just simple political dissent.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what groups are coming to the support of the National Lawyers’ Guild?

MICHAEL AVERY: We have received an enormous amount of support around the country. The Society Of The American Law Teachers, the campaign United For Peace And Justice, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, and many other groups have contacted us, and asked us what they can do and are prepared, I think, to go to the mat on this. The government has really overstepped its bounds here. I think it’s something that everybody needs to be concerned about.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Avery of The National Lawyers’ Guild, I want to thank you for being with us.

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