Leonard C. Goodman: An important case threatening First Amendment rights is about to go to trial

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An important case threatening the First Amendment right of all Americans to criticize their government will go to trial this September in a federal courtroom in Tampa, Florida, with barely any attention from the mainstream news media. The defendants are three activists — Omali Yeshitela, Penny Hess and Jesse Nevel — associated with the African People’s Socialist Party (APSP), whom the government alleges acted as Russian agents when they criticized U.S. interference in Ukraine.

The APSP was founded in 1972 by Yeshitela. It is an activist group in the Black radical tradition. The group is nonviolent and seeks to spark change through political speech, activism and its community work. The APSP is based in St. Petersburg, Florida; St. Louis; and Oakland, California, where it operates farmers markets, recreation programs and small businesses that benefit local communities. 

During its 50 years of existence, the APSP has earned a significant following. It publishes its own newspaper called The Burning Spear.

APSP’s political activism has not changed over its 50-year history. It opposes Western colonialism and the exploitation of resources that belong to the peoples of other nations. It sees NATO as a western military alliance designed to dominate the colonized peoples of the world. It opposed the U.S.-led NATO war on Libya in 2011, and it has consistently opposed NATOs expansion eastward toward Russia’s border, an expansion that began in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany.  

The APSP has also long opposed U.S. interference in Ukraine. In 2014, the group publicly denounced U.S. involvement in the Maidan coup in which the CIA helped overthrow Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, and replace him with a “U.S./EU puppet regime.” 

The trouble began for the APSP in spring 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The APSP was one of the few prominent activist groups that publicly blamed the U.S. government for provoking the invasion, thus contradicting the official position of the U.S. that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was unprovoked. In public rallies, APSP leaders blamed the U.S. and NATO for creating the crisis in Ukraine by expanding NATO “800 miles toward the border of Russia” by helping overthrow Ukraine’s elected president and by arming Ukraine “to the teeth.”

Then on July 29, 2022, in what appears to be a direct effort to suppress dissenting speech, FBI SWAT teams raided the homes of APSP leaders, including its 82-year-old founder Yeshitela, and the group’s offices in St. Petersburg and St. Louis. Then in April 2023, the government formally charged Yeshitela, Hess and Nevel under an obscure federal statute that makes it a federal crime to act as an agent of a foreign government without registering with the attorney general. If convicted, the three defendants face up to 15 years in federal prison. 

To justify this charge, the indictment notes that the APSP received a small amount of financial support — about $7,000 —  in 2016 from a person whom the government alleges has ties to the Russian government. 

Many activist groups receive financial support from foreign nationals or even directly from foreign governments. This is perfectly legal, according to the U.S. Department of State website. For example, prominent Washington think tanks regularly receive tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments while pushing policies that reflect the priorities of their donors. None of the leaders of these groups are ever prosecuted as foreign agents. 

Many Americans will disagree with the APSP defendants’ view that the U.S. provoked Russia into invading Ukraine. But agree or disagree, we must support their right to speak out and to dissent. The right to criticize our government is the most fundamental value protected by the First Amendment. If we lose that right, our democracy cannot survive. 

Leonard C. Goodman is a Chicago criminal defense lawyer who is representing Penny Hess.

Read the Article at Chicago Tribune

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