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Dissent: A Hazardous Duty?

Anti-war protesters march down Broadway in New York's Hearld Square, Saturday March 22, 2003. Tens of thousands of anti-war demonstrators, many chanting "Peace now!," marched down Broadway voicing their opposition to the war in Iraq even as explosions were heard in Baghdad. United for Peace and Justice, the organizers of the march, estimated the crowd at 100,000.
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The speech was a fierce condemnation of war, delivered to a crowd at an Ohio convention. The orator lashed out at the government for charging into a battle that the reluctant working class had to fight. "If war is right, let it be declared by the people!"

It was 1918 and the conflict was World War I. For his words of dissent, socialist leader Eugene Debs claimed protection from the First Amendment — but he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Eighty-five years later, in 2003, New Mexico teacher Geoffrey Barrett learned anew how free expression gets a narrower interpretation in wartime.

Barrett refused to take down anti-war posters made by some of the students in his ninth-grade class. His punishment: Suspension.

The lesson he says his students learned is: "Their viewpoints can be snuffed out."

The philosopher Cicero recognized the dilemma in Roman times. "Inter arma silent leges," he wrote. In times of war, the laws are silent.

And U.S. wars are no different, regardless of the Bill of Rights, experts say.

Barely a decade after the Constitution was ratified, newspaper editors were arrested for speaking out against the president and Congress during a 1798 conflict with France.

At the onset of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, allowing protesters and rioters to be arrested and held without formal charges.

In World War I, Debs was not the only American punished for speaking against the conflict. One man was arrested for criticizing women who knitted socks for soldiers.

World War II brought the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans.

"The irony is that we claim to be fighting for freedom," said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va. "The reality is that at home, we often show how sometimes superficial our commitment is to the very principles we're defending."

The courts have long said the government's authority to limit civil liberties is greater in war than in peacetime. Typically, restrictions are imposed under the premise of national security or prohibiting actions that could interfere with war.

"Judges, like other citizens, do not wish to hinder a nation's `war effort,"' U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist has written.

So the courts often are silent or rule on the side of the government — and the public doesn't always protest.

"In a time of crisis, nobody reads the fine print. Most people are concerned about security," said Haynes.

Haynes' center conducted a poll following passage of the USA Patriot Act, which allowed authorities, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to detain suspected terrorists indefinitely, secretly monitor political groups and take other tough steps in the name of the anti-terror war.

The public generally supported the sweeping new powers. Nearly half of those surveyed in fact said the constitutional protection of free speech goes too far.

Michael Klarman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Virginia, said the country must strike a delicate balance between maintaining liberty and security. In times of crisis, "a democratic society — if it's going to survive — may have to adjust the trade-off."

The danger, he said, is "patriotism run amok."

"During World War I," he said, "there were lots of vigilante mobs that were enforcing this 100-percent Americanism: `If you're not donating to war bonds, we're going to tar and feather you.'

"There are still some people who clearly have the view that once you're at war, you're supposed to consolidate ranks and you're not supposed to criticize."

So it was that the Dixie Chicks — the Texas trio whose lead singer, Natalie Maines, criticized President Bush — faced organized boycotts and even a South Carolina legislative resolution demanding a free concert for troops as penance.

"In times of war, the temptation for people to wrap themselves in the flag and then forget the principles for which it stands is overwhelming," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

She cited the case of a lawyer who was thrown out of an Albany shopping mall and arrested for wearing a "Peace on Earth" T-shirt that he had purchased at the very same mall. A trespassing charge was dropped after critical media attention.

Lieberman's organization has erected a billboard on Interstate 90 in Albany showing a gagged person with the text: "Welcome to the mall. You have the right to remain Silent. Value free speech."

Geoffrey Barrett says valuing free speech was a lesson he tried to impart in his classes.

Barrett, who teaches history and current events at Highland High School in Albuquerque, gave his students an optional assignment to design posters that reflected their views on the war in Iraq.

Though some carried messages backing U.S. military action, others dissented.

"No War With Iraq," said one.

"Support Our Troops: Bring Them Home," read another.

Within hours of hanging the signs in his classroom on March 31, Barrett said he was called into the principal's office, told the school had to stay neutral and ordered to remove the signs. When he refused, Barrett was suspended with pay. Another teacher with anti-war posters in his classroom, Allen Cooper, also was suspended. Both have since been allowed to return to the classroom.

School district spokesman Rigo Chavez said the teachers violated a policy requiring controversial issues to be debated in the context of a class discussion. The district doesn't view the situation as an infringement upon civil liberties, he said, because "the class discussion had already taken place."
By Pauline Arrillaga