Environmental Vigilantism Is Not ‘Free Speech’

Published January 1, 2004

Greenpeace, Inc., one of the world’s most confrontational environmental activist groups, is facing criminal prosecution for organizing an illegal boarding and boatjacking of a ship it falsely believed carried rare Brazilian mahogany. Greenpeace has raised a big fuss over its criminal prosecution and has sought and received support from some very prominent environmental activists regarding the incident. The activists claim prosecution of the group for exercising its “free speech rights” is a threat to all Americans’ civil liberties.

In my opinion, Greenpeace and its activist supporters pose the real threat to civil liberties.

The boatjacking occurred in April 2002 when three Greenpeace boats shadowed and then surrounded a private ship, the Singapore-registered APL Jade, as it approached the port of Miami. Greenpeace mistakenly believed the boat was ferrying Brazilian mahogany to America. Rather than raising public awareness regarding Brazilian mahogany by using its Web site or marching on Congress, Greenpeace took it upon itself to forcibly halt the private ship, board it, and then attempt to affix a large anti-logging banner to it.

The boatjacking of a private vessel was a clear violation of American and international law. Officials of Greenpeace knew this and admit the boatjacking was typical of the organization’s confrontational methods against not only government institutions, but individual citizens and private companies as well. Nevertheless, Greenpeace and its apologists argue the group should be excused from prosecution for its criminal conduct because its unlawful actions amounted to “free speech.”

Important to this issue is an understanding of the First Amendment and its free speech protections. The First Amendment holds inviolable the right of American citizens to voice criticisms of our government. Honest and open political discussion, without the threat of government intimidation, is vital to our democratic institutions.

Criminal Activity

The focus of the First Amendment is the right to express an idea or an opinion. While the idea or opinion is protected, however, the First Amendment does not give people, or in this case a corporation, a blank check to engage in unlawful hooliganism simply because “an opinion” motivated the unlawful conduct.

If my friends and I decided to carjack an SUV full of Greenpeace activists and force them to drive around with a banner denouncing Ralph Nader, my conduct would not be lawful and excusable simply because I was motivated by ideological/political beliefs. The fact that environmental activist groups frequently engage in the hypocrisy of driving the very SUVs they seek to keep others from buying would not change the unlawful nature of my conduct.

Similarly, if I formed a corporation, raised hundreds of millions of tax-free dollars each year under the pretense of “educational activities,” and used those funds to plan, recruit for, and direct the illegal carjacking described above, then surely my corporation cannot escape legal repercussions merely by claiming the activity was motivated by ideological beliefs.

The Greenpeace, Inc. boatjacking is not very different from the hypothetical example above. Indeed, Greenpeace’s conduct was so severe that the International Maritime Organization, which has in the past welcomed Greenpeace as a consultative member, is in the process of expelling the organization for its act of piracy.

Is hooliganism that violates criminal statutes lawful and protected merely because the hooliganism is motivated by political beliefs? Do free speech provisions–designed to protect the right of American citizens to criticize their government–allow corporations the right to harass and assault private citizens merely because the corporations are allegedly motivated by strong opinions?

“Free speech” is clearly a civil rights protection far different in nature and scope than what Greenpeace claims. By scurrilously twisting the definition of our sacred free speech protections in order to escape responsibility for its extremist vigilantism, it is Greenpeace and its extremist allies that threaten our most important civil liberties.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].