The ACLU Strikes Back


Give the ACLU a little credit. Here they are, ready with a lawsuit against the FBI less than a month after agents pressured an ISP and filmmaker to remove a film deemed dangerous from crowdedtheater.com. The plaintiffs are, of course, Mike Zieper, the artist whose Y2K military takeover video was pulled, and Mark Wieger, the ISP owner. The suit names Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI director Louis Freeh, among others, as defendants.

“As a result of the government’s actions, an artist has experienced censorship and intimidation, and a businessman has been forced to choose between his rights and his livelihood,” stated Ann Beeson, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s national office, which filed the case together with the ACLU of New Jersey. The suit seeks financial damages, a court declaration that the government acted unlawfully, and an injunction against further activities of this sort.

Wieger clearly suffered when he pulled Zieper’s site. Angry netizens flamed his Web site, damaging his reputation as a host friendly to cyber-liberties. But now that Wieger and Zieper have joined forces against the FBI, perhaps Wieger will emerge as a hero.

“As soon as I realized the FBI was not going to charge me, I started to talk to him about doing business together again.” says Z. “I honestly think he did what he had to do at the time, he complied with their request because he thought he had to. He thought it was a criminal proceeding.”

The damage to Z. is less clear. He was left without a Web site for a few days, and was scared out of his wits when agents showed up at his doorstep, but the controversy sparked more publicity (the first of many articles appeared in the Voice) than he ever dreamed of. “Always my intention was to get the work seen by people,” says Z. “I wouldn’t have wanted it to happen this way, but it certainly has helped to get the word out that I have a different way of approaching filmmaking, and for that I am thankful to the FBI.” Indeed, at last count crowdedtheater.com had 200,000 hits, as compared to a few thousand before the FBI’s clumsy attempt at censorship.

The real question, though, is whether the case is an aberration or part of a larger practice of government surveillance. And unfortunately, we may never get a satisfactory answer.

The ACLU believes that Project Megiddo, the FBI strategy for fighting religious terrorists, is the root cause of the censorship attempt. In its court brief, the ACLU cites Megiddo and draws a parallel between the project’s mandate to silence prophets of doom and the way the FBI pressured Z. and Wieger. But that’s a reach. It’s hard to see how Z.’s video could be categorized as religious extremism, especially as it contains no allusions to biblical prophecy. So either Megiddo has a broader mandate than the FBI has publicly stated, or there’s another project involved.

The FBI is likely to keep details of the strategy under wraps. And when it comes to the Z. case, their tactic is complete denial. Spokespeople are already saying that neither Zieper nor Wieger were ever asked to remove the site.

For lack of a better segue, this brings us to the myth of Sisyphus. Recall that Sisyphus’s punishment for angering the gods was an eternity of fruitless labor. The ACLU lawyers are in a similar situation. They have plenty of work on their hands, but little leverage over the FBI. For those who worry about government surveillance, the key questions are:

* How many Web sites and newsgroups does the FBI monitor on a regular basis?

* Who decides what constitutes a domestic threat? What criteria does the FBI use to determine whom to put under surveillance?

* How many other ISP owners and Web site operators has the FBI approached without a court order?

Don’t hold your breath waiting for answers.