Webmaster to start one-year sentence

Sherman Austin headed to jail on Wednesday to start his one-year prison sentence, guilty of hosting plans for the manufacture of explosives on his anarchist website, RaiseTheFist.com. The plans were not written by Austin, but Austin provided free hosting for anarchists and political protesters. In January of 2002, the FBI raided the home where Austin lived with his parents and confiscated all his computers and backup disks, including the server for RaiseTheFist. Agents also found components to make a Molotov cocktail. Austin was 18 years old at the time. (Austin details the entire story in an interview with CounterPunch.)

A few days later Austin went to the World Economic Forum protest in New York, where he was arrested and held without bail. He was eventually charged with possession of an unregistered firearm (the Molotov cocktail components), and with violating the controversial 1997 federal law that makes it illegal to distribute information about the manufacture of explosives “with the intent that the… information be used for, or in furtherance of, an activity that constitutes a Federal crime of violence.” The law, championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), raised serious first amendment issues when it was proposed. According to a CNET interview with Austin shortly before he went to prison, he is the first person to be convicted under the law.

In a statement on his web site, Austin said he originally planned to contest the charges. He decided to plead guilty to the information dissemination crime in return for the dropping of the firearms charge, because “after my lawyer consulted the USPO working on the case, she found out that a ‘terrorism enhancement’ is applicable to my charge, which could get me an additional 20 years.” According to the LA Times, Austin was offered a plea bargain of four months in prison followed by four months in a halfway house, but U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson rejected the plea and sentenced Austin to a full year in prison. After completing his term, he will be placed on three years probation, and will be barred from associating with any groups that espouse violence to achieve political, economic or social change. He will also need permission from the probation office operate a computer. The EFF has protested that the sentence is too severe for the alleged crime.

Several things bother me about this case.

First are the obvious First Amendment issues with the anti-information law under which he was convicted. Two things are necessary for this law to apply. The first is the distribution of information about explosives, which is clearly pure speech that is protected under the First Amendment. The second is the intent that the information be used for a violent crime, which is inherently difficult to prove or to disprove. It seems quite reasonable that Austin was all bluster and no action, an angry 18-year-old boy who liked to play political terrorist on his website and in his back yard but was not violent in real life. It is telling that the only previous charges brought against Austin were for refusal to disperse, conspiracy to commit a refusal to disperse, unlawful assembly, and disorderly conduct for blocking pedestrian traffic. In other words, for committing peaceful civil disobedience.

It’s not surprising that the FBI thought they were dealing with a dangerous terrorist psychopathic when they went to RaiseTheFist.com and saw pictures of George W. Bush with a gun sight on his head, or read posts saying “Yeah, motherfucker, I’m a terrorist to the United States Government. I’m a terrorist to capitalism.” and “We don’t gather weapons, plan extreme operation, and risk our lives for nothing. This is real.” But that’s just speech, not action. It’s like the old Saturday Night Live running gag where someone says “Well, it’s not like I said I was going to kill the president…” and gets jumped by Secret Service agents that come out of nowhere. It’s also not clear to me whether Austin was the author of any of these more violent postings, or whether he merely hosted them.

The second bothersome point is that the this smacks of selective enforcement. Information on how to make bombs is everywhere, from libraries to web sites to bookstores. This includes the infamous Anarchist’s Cookbook that was published in 1970, and about which the author admits that the “central idea to the book was that violence is an acceptable means to bring about political change.” And yet, the FBI has yet to raid Amazon.com to stop them from distributing this information. Of course, Amazon was not the author of the book, and it would be unfair to assume that Amazon intends violence just because they sell a violent book. Just as Austin did not write the explosives guide, and it is unfair to assume he intends any violence just because he offers web hosting for a violent page. Clearly, the crackdown was at least in part due to RaiseTheFist’s message, and the fact that this message was in alignment with the growing anti-globalization movement.

The final point is most troubling: Austin was never able to argue his case. Plea bargains are meant to be an incentive to surrender when guilt is obvious. In cases like Austin’s, where the plea is for a four-month sentence and the risk is 20+ years, there is huge incentive for a suspect to plead guilty even when he knows he is innocent. Sadly, this is often the rule rather than the exception, especially for the poor. It is only because this case involves mediapathic issues such as First-Amendment rights, the Internet, and terrorism that we have heard about it at all, unlike the hundreds of cases every day where innocent men and women cop a plea to go free based on time served rather than risk further jail time to clear their names.

Austin’s lawyer describes his client as “a very peaceful person” who got carried away “in a very heated political environment.” A clinical psychologist who specializes in threat assessments wrote for the defense that Austin “does not appear to have seriously considered the ramifications” of his actions “and would have been horrified had someone been injured.” Let us hope that his year in prison, and his apparent abuse by the system, does not turn this peaceful-but-angry young man into the very terror the FBI fears.