I have frequently seen a group known as “Peace Fresno” standing on street corners, holding up signs and protesting various war activities.
Steve Malm, one of their members, periodically sends me email or stops me in the parking lot — we both attend San Joaquin College of Law — to tell me a little about what’s going on. But, frankly, I don’t know that much about them otherwise. Their activities aren’t exactly my cup of tea. I’d rather be ignored while writing my blog, which at least forces me to think, than ignored while standing on street corners waving signs. (I’m don’t intend this as any kind of negative comment on their work; it’s just not my approach.)
Nevertheless, if stories Steve has emailed me about are true, I am disturbed. (I know, I know: Many of you think I’m disturbed anyway. I’m talking about something else here!) Steve tells me — and the Fresno Bee has reported in more detail — that the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department has been spying on them.
Such a thing, if true, should never happen in the United States.
Some of you may disagree. The Sheriff certainly does. Although he denies that Peace Fresno is under investigation, he states,
For the purpose of detecting or preventing terrorist activities, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department may visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public, on the same terms and conditions as members of the public generally.
Forget the fact that this country belongs to “we, the people” and that we have certain unalienable rights, among which, by constitutional declaration, are freedom of speech and association. Police agents of the government — who are charged with enforcing our laws — should have some reason to suspect criminal activity before investing department resources in any investigation. Sheriff’s deputies cost money. The paperwork they create and file costs money. The storage for their files — even if this is on computer — costs money. The personnel who help maintain and catalog the data cost money. The people who complain about taxes tend to forget this, but that doesn’t change the fact that every investigation has to be paid for by someone. And that someone is we, the taxpayers.
The fact that a group calls itself “Peace Fresno” and periodically waves signs on street corners and calls out to drivers does not seem in and of itself to be a sufficient indicator of criminal activity rising to a level requiring investigation. If it is, then it seems to me that Christian study groups are also appropriate targets. They not only sit around discussing potentially subversive ideas (such as, among others, that there is a higher law than that the sheriff’s department enforces and that people must obey G-d and not men; these people periodically do break laws) and they believe in these ideas so fervently that they not only organize public demonstrations, but coordinate their activities so that they can actually target entire neighborhoods with a door-to-door peddling of their subversive ideas!
Before you get all fired up over that last paragraph: I’m joking. Well, sort of. But I don’t think church groups are appropriate targets for investigation — barring prior evidence or reasonable suspicion of illegal activity — certainly not anymore than Peace Fresno.
If the Sheriff feels the need to “visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public,” then I think he needs to do so “on the same terms and conditions as members of the public generally.” Those terms and conditions do not include spying. I know of not a single group in Fresno — or anywhere, for that matter — which says, “Please feel free to join our meetings and participate in our events, hiding your identity from us and taking notes about us for the purposes of compiling a dossier for the government.” I know whenever I visit any place or attend any event open to the public, I expect that the people I meet there are being honest with me about any revelations they make about themselves. I don’t expect they are clandestinely making notes about the fact that I was there; I don’t expect they are keeping files on what I say or do; and I don’t expect that they are turning these files over to the government for any purpose, let alone because my government does not like what I say or do.
Sure, nothing prevents anyone from doing this. That’s just because most groups don’t have written terms and conditions for visiting them or attending their events! (And, if they did, and these forbid the kinds of activities in which the Sheriff’s undercover agents might engage, would he honor them? Or was even this statement he made to the press on the same level as those made by undercover agents who claim to be independently wealthy when they are not?) The “terms and conditions” that apply to any gathering of people in a free society are largely implicit. As noted above, it’s just not one’s expectation in a free, open and democratic Republic that the people you meet in such places are there to spy on you, to collect and compile information and to turn it over as a permanent record to the government. Such activities are anathema to a free democratic society. They have a potential chilling effect, if nothing else, upon freedom of speech and association.
Spying on their own citizens is one of the cardinal sins the British committed which lead our Founders to foment a revolution against them, and to write a Constitution that restricted the power of the government they then founded.
This is not communist Russia. This is not Iraq. This is not any other police state. This is America.
And undercover police agents spying on non-criminal gatherings of citizens is not part of the Terms and Conditions of our Constitution.