How US Gov’t Prosecution of Uhuru Activists Threatens a ‘First Amendment Exception’ – Anya Parampil 10/5/23


Defense attorneys representing three US citizens accused of operating a Russia-directed “malign influence campaign” to “sow discord” in the United States urged Federal Magistrate Judge Anthony E. Porcelli to dismiss the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) case against their clients this September 28, arguing their continued prosecution threatens to “blow a hole in the 1st Amendment.”

“This is a very dangerous case. I have not seen anything like it in 25 years of practicing law. The government is trying to put three of its critics in jail for making political speeches, organizing peaceable rallies and publishing political articles,” Leonard Goodman, an attorney representing one of the defendants, commented to The Grayzone outside the US district courthouse in Tampa, Florida.

A federal grand jury charged Florida residents Omali Yeshitela, Penny Joanne Hess, and Jesse Nevel with acting as unregistered agents of the Russian government in April, accusing them of carrying out “a multi-year foreign malign influence campaign” to “sow discord and spread pro-Russian propaganda” in the United States. The charges stemmed from their political activism as part of the Uhuru Movement, a self-described African Nationalist organization that Yeshitela founded in 1972.

Their defense lawyers argue that their prosecution represents an unprecedented threat to the First Amendment, with the DOJ seeking to not only criminalize the public speech and political activity of US citizens, but set a legal precedent regarding the government’s definition of “disinformation.” In its opposition to Goodman’s motion to dismiss, the DOJ argues that the term “does not refer to information that is necessarily false.”

The DOJ has attempted to bolster its argument by citing Thomas Rid, a Johns Hopkins academic who gained prominence as a pundit during the Russiagate affair. In a 2020 Washington Post commentary, Rid insisted, “We must treat the Hunter Biden leaks as if they were a foreign intelligence operation — even if they probably aren’t.”

The DOJ quotes Rid’s book, Active Measures, to argue that disinformation “refers to Russian intelligence’s long standing employment of ‘active measures’” that “seek to create wedges that reduce trust and confidence in democratic processes, degrade democratization efforts, weaken US partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions, encourage anti-US and anti-Western political views, and counter efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European and international institutions.’”

Lawyers for the Uhuru 3 maintain that the DOJ’s justification for prosecuting their clients sets the stage for the US government to legally harass and prosecute other Americans who criticize US domestic and foreign policy, particularly where designated enemies like Russia or China are concerned.

“The government is asking the Court to create a new exception to the First Amendment for what it calls ‘disinformation,’” Goodman asserted. (Full disclosure: Goodman donated to The Grayzone at its inception in 2018 and has previously volunteered legal analysis to this site).

Indeed, the indictment accuses Yeshitela of spreading “disinformation and propaganda” during a February 2022 speech to supporters. During that address, the defendant argued that the US and NATO had provoked Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by expanding NATO “800 miles towards the border of Russia,” by sponsoring a 2014 coup against the government of Ukraine, and by arming Kiev “to the teeth.”

The Uhuru 3’s defense lawyers pointed out their clients’ views “are nearly identical to the views held by well-renowned public intellectuals such as Professors Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago.”

“In response, the government now seeks authority to label anything you say ‘disinformation’ if it is favorable to Russia, or whatever country the government wants to have a war with,” Goodman explained.

Multiple military style raids target the Uhuru movement

The April indictment of the Uhuru 3 defendants came nine months after the FBI raided several properties affiliated with the Uhuru Movement in Florida and Missouri. And it was not the first time properties affiliated with the group had been invaded by SWAT teams….

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