ACLU Challenges McCarthy-Era Anti-Communist Propaganda Law

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
December 15, 1999 12:00 am

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NEW ORLEANS — The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana today filed a federal lawsuit challenging a remnant of the McCarthy era witchhunts that makes possession of so-called “communist propaganda” a felony punishable with up to six years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

The ACLU lawsuit was filed on behalf of three plaintiffs, including John Kramer, former dean of Tulane Law School; Al Shapiro, a private attorney in Baton Rouge, and Mike Howells, publisher and distributor of a newsletter called “The Bayou Worker,” which contains material on alternatives to capitalism that would be covered under the law.

The lawsuit cites illegal censorship of free speech and free press rights and discrimination against the plaintiffs because of political ideas.

“The ACLU believes in the freedom of thought, inquiry or advocacy by any individual or group regarding a specific economic, social or political philosophy,” said Joe Cook, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “That position, grounded solely on the nation’s tradition of free speech, means no governmental restriction unless there exists a clear and present danger of illegal action.

“The Constitution’s high free speech threshold means not mere advocacy, but also includes actual intent, effect and circumstances of the conduct in question,” Cook continued. “Since Governor Foster evidently supports David Duke’s right to spout racist and anti-Semitic propaganda, he should at least agree with the ACLU’s position on overturning this law.”

The lawsuit said the law fails muster under both the United States and Louisiana constitutions. Individuals or institutions granted exceptions to receive the “propaganda” — “… students of foreign languages, foreign affairs, or foreign political systems, other interested individuals, and … accredited educational institutions …” — have no way of knowing what materials might qualify as “communist propaganda,” the lawsuit says.

The ACLU further argues that such materials are readily available on the Internet to anyone with a computer and a connection. Such material cannot be labeled with the words “Communist Propaganda” on the front and back cover in red ink as required by the law. The lawsuit says that the vagueness of the statute leaves the plaintiffs in the dark as to whether they may lawfully obtain and distribute such material received over the Internet.

ACLU Foundation of Louisiana Cooperating attorney Marjorie Esman represents the plaintiffs.

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