ACLU of New Mexico Defends VA Employee Accused of ‘Sedition’ Over Criticism of Bush Administration

Affiliate: ACLU of New Mexico
January 31, 2006 12:00 am

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ALBUQUERQUE —The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico today demanded an explanation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for investigating a federal employee who published an editorial critical of the Bush administration in a local newspaper.

In her letter to the weekly Alibi, Laura Berg, a clinical nurse specialist, criticized the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War, noting that, “as a VA nurse working with returning…vets, I know the public has no sense of the additional devastating human and financial costs of post-traumatic stress disorder.” She urged readers to “act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit.”

In September 2005, VA Information Security employees seized Berg’s office computer because they claimed “government equipment was used inappropriately…during government time for drafting an editorial letter.” No evidence was recovered to support that belief.

“The VA had no reason to suspect Laura Berg used government resources to produce her editorial,” said ACLU of New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson. “She signed the letter as a private individual. From all appearances, the seizure of her work computer was an act of retaliation and a hardball attempt to scare Laura into silence.”

In a November 9th memorandum to Berg, Mel Hooker, Chief of Human Resource Management Service at the VA, conceded that no evidence was found implicating the use of Berg’s work computer in the writing of the editorial. However, he justified the investigation by saying “the Agency is bound by law to investigate and pursue any act which potentially represents sedition.”

Simonson added: “The reference to ‘sedition’ is shocking. Even if Laura had used the office computer it would change nothing. None of her actions — her criticism of the government, or her appeal for a change in the heads of government — approach an act of unlawful insurrection. Is this government so jealous of its power, so fearful of dissent, that it needs to threaten people who openly oppose its policies with charges of ‘sedition’?”

ACLU attorneys George Bach and Larry Kronen plan to submit a request under the Freedom of Information Act for all documents related to the VA’s actions towards Berg. They have asked Hooker for a public apology “to remedy the unconstitutional chilling effect on the speech of VA employees that has resulted from these intimidating tactics.”

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