Laura Berg has spent the last 15 years working as a clinical nurse specialist at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Albuquerque, NM. Outraged over the federal government’s slow response after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, she exercised her First Amendment right and wrote a letter to her local weekly newspaper criticizing Dubya Bush. After the letter’s publication last September, her bosses — administrators from the federal VA — seized her work computer and investigated her for “sedition.”
Excuse me, but aren’t sedition laws a thing of the past? Wasn’t John Adams denied a second presidential term in the election of 1800 in large part because of his efforts to undermine civil liberties?
In 1798, on the verge of possible war with France, a possibility that did not sit well with the Republican Party (not to be confused with today’s GOP), Adams (of the war-hungry Federalists) signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts. Among other things, these repressive laws sent people to prison for criticizing government officials and policies. Many see Thomas Jefferson’s electoral victory as a direct result of Republican efforts to smear Adams for violating civil liberties – and as much as I admire Adams, my favorite Revolutionary Era figure despite his right-wing leanings and support for a “natural aristocracy,” he got what he deserved. Years later, to his credit, he admitted that the Acts had been a colossal mistake.
Thankfully, the Alien and Sedition Acts expired on the final day of Adams’ term in 1801. This makes Laura Berg’s story all the more curious.
The Progressive summarizes Berg’s missive to the Alibi:
“I am furious with the tragically misplaced priorities and criminal negligence of this government,” it began. “The Katrina tragedy in the U.S. shows that the emperor has no clothes!” She mentioned that she was “a VA nurse” working with returning vets. “The public has no sense of the additional devastating human and financial costs of post-traumatic stress disorder,” she wrote, and she worried about the hundreds of thousands of additional cases that might result from Katrina and the Iraq War.
“Bush, Cheney, Chertoff, Brown, and Rice should be tried for criminal negligence,” she wrote. “This country needs to get out of Iraq now and return to our original vision and priorities of caring for land and people and resources rather than killing for oil. … We need to wake up and get real here, and act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit. Otherwise, many more of us will be facing living hell in these times.”
When her employer grabbed her computer, Berg asked for an explanation. A response came from Mel Hooker, chief of the Albuquerque VA’s human resources management service: “The Agency is bound by law to investigate and pursue any act which potentially represents sedition,” he said. “In your letter … you declared yourself ‘as a VA nurse’ and publicly declared the Government which employs you to have ‘tragically misplaced priorities and criminal negligence’ and advocated, ‘act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit.'”
Another explanation came from Bill Armstrong, a public-affairs specialist for New Mexico’s VA Health Care System: “While VA does not prohibit employees from exercising their freedom of speech, we do ask that such activity occurs outside government premises and not during their official tour of duty. … When we have reason to believe that this policy is not being adhered to, we have the obligation to review an individual’s computer activity.”
Happily, the investigators determined quickly that Berg did not write or send the letter to the editor from her VA computer or on government time. But there is another concern.
From the Alibi:
According to [Berg’s lawyers], on Sept. 19, 2005, Berg’s American Federation of Government Employees Union representative, Thomas Driber, informed Berg that her letter to the Alibi had been sent through “VA channels” to the FBI in Washington, D.C. The attorneys say this information was confirmed by one of the union’s Washington lawyers during a conference call between Driber, Berg and the union lawyer.
Hooker responded to Berg in a Nov. 9 memo: “The Agency has no knowledge of any report alleged to have been made to the FBI regarding you or your letter.”
Putting aside that comment (while noting that its veracity is unproven), the truth remains that an accusation of “sedition” is chilling and terrifyingly old-school. But, yes, present-day law allows a person to be charged with the not-so-retro crime.
“Sedition is only mentioned in one section of the United States Code,” Norman Cairns, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Albuquerque told the Alibi. “…[T]he sedition that’s listed there is basically a plot to violently overthrow the United States government by force. Based on the plain statutory language, sedition always seems to imply the use of force or a conspiracy to use force. The penalty is a $250,000 fine and up to 20 years in prison.”
Given that Berg’s letter clearly does not advocate violent revolution, one would think the nurse had no reason for further concern. That isn’t the case. The fascist feds apparently have succeeded in frightening the poor woman into silence, even though she does have the right to free speech. Berg reportedly is afraid to talk with media about her experience. According to Peter Simonson, executive director of New Mexico’s ACLU, Berg is “scared for her job” and “pretty emotionally distressed.”
So the matter is not over. The ACLU, according to The Progressive, “has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to this incident.”
And it is asking “at the very least” that Berg “receive a public apology from Mr. Hooker to remedy the unconstitutional chilling effect on the speech of VA employees that has resulted from these intimidating tactics,” according to a letter from the New Mexico ACLU to the VA’s Office of Regional Counsel.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) defended Berg in a Feb. 7 letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson. “In a democracy,” he wrote, “expressing disagreement with the government’s actions does not amount to sedition or insurrection — it is, and must remain, protected speech.”
Indeed true. But who knows? This is Dubya Bush’s Amerikkka, which follows in the footsteps of a regrettably right-wing John Adams. So-called leaders can grant themselves new powers at any time. Justice and liberty are under siege courtesy of a Patriot Act that resembles the Alien and Sedition Acts John Adams regretted enacting. Federal employees work under a cloud of repression and fear. And you, dear dissenter, are, in right-wing eyes, either with the Bushites or with the terrorists.
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