Grassroots speakers aren’t racketeers

During the last several months, several corporations have started fighting back against pro-labor forces that have been waging withering "corporate campaigns" against them.   In their crosshairs are labor union supported grassroots websites – like Justice at Smithfield, EyeOnWackenhut.com, and WakeUpWalmart.com – who cast corporations in a bad light by alleging employee mistreatment and other corporate malfeasance.  Through posts on the web, public protests outside of a corporation’s headquarters, and other media-conscious efforts, these websites try to shower a targeted corporation with bad publicity until it has no choice but to adopt a pro-union stance.

Tired of the abuse, loss of business, and bad publicity, these corporations have taken the extreme step of suing these grassroots groups under the powerful federal Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO") – a statute traditionally employed against drug lords and mob bosses.  According to the complaints filed by security services provider Wackenhut Corp. and slaughterhouse operator Smithfield in federal court, this negative publicity is actually carefully planned extortion orchestrated by a conspiracy of unions, pro-labor activists, and consultants.  It’s not surprising that Wackenhut and Smithfield employed the RICO statute to try and silence their ideological opposition after losing the public relations war in the media.  RICO has been a favorite censorship tool of both the left and the right over the years. 

For example, President Reagan’s Justice Department pandered to the Religious Right by prosecuting the adult entertainment industry using RICO (Attorney General Ed Meese claimed that BigPorn was a front for organized crime).  Similarly, pro-choice groups and abortion providers fought an unsuccessful 20-year legal battle to bring RICO charges against individuals who protested outside of clinics (The pro-choice crowd argued that the protesters were conspiring to unlawfully "obtain property" from women purchasing the clinic’s services).

Now Corporate America is picking up where Meese and the pro-choice advocates left off.  If Wackenhut and Smithfield’s well-heeled corporate counsel are able to successfully argue that setting up a web page, posting content that disparages corporate conduct, distributing newsletters, and associating and assembling peaceably to protest corporate action exposes an organization to financial liability, the First Amendment will be dealt a serious blow.  Such charges are wholly foreign to the First Amendment.  The Supreme Court has previously held that ideologically motivated boycotts are protected expression.  If this is still the case, then shouldn’t factually accurate expression that promotes, justifies, and buttresses such protected symbolic speech be entitled to the same constitutional protection?

Wackenhut and Smithfield need to understand that attempting to silence grassroots organizations with lawsuits relying on overbroad statutes will win them few sympathizers in the public sphere.  Instead of portraying themselves as whiny downtrodden victims – an absurd characterization of massive conglomerations of capital and power – they should clean up their business practices and engage their opponents in the marketplace of ideas.   There is nothing stopping them, for example, from making their extortion arguments through an ideological grassroots organization founded with other like-minded individuals (think "KeepAnEyeOnTheSEIU.com").    

If none of these options appeal to Wackenhut and Smithfield, then they should shut up and accept the beating these grassroots organizations are dishing out.  If you can’t compete in a pluralistic society, especially if you’re armed with ample resources to express your point of view, then you deserve whatever fate brings you.  Silencing the opposition is only acceptable if you’re an anti-democratic dictator like Pervez Musharraf, Hugo Chavez, or Vladimir Putin.  Here in America, it simply won’t fly.