News Release

Is the FBI Targeting Legitimate First Amendment Activity?

PATRICK EDDINGTON, PEddington@cato.org, @PGEddington
Eddington is senior fellow at the Cato Institute focusing on homeland security and civil liberties. He recently wrote the piece “Indictments and Raids: FBI Moves against Fringe ‘Influencers’ in Russia Probe” about the FBI targeting of Aleksandr Ionov, some small U.S. political activist groups — and potentially Change.org. Eddington states that Ionov may have violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act. However, the FBI executed raids on and appears to be targeting the African People’s Socialist Party, the Uhuru House, and Yes California. Writes Eddington: “FBI raids on the first two of the organizations were executed in St. Louis, Missouri and St. Petersburg, Florida.”

Eddington notes that FBI documents also mention Change.org. “Whether the FBI is targeting Change.org itself is unknown at this juncture, but if it is it would be a deeply alarming development from a First Amendment standpoint. And the fact that the FBI has taken an interest in a speech centric political advocacy platform like Change.org as a potential vehicle for foreign influence operations may itself have a chilling effect on those considering using Change.org or similar platforms to push for specific political reform proposals.“Assuming the allegations asserted in the indictment by DoJ with respect to Ionov are valid, the case against him seems fairly straightforward. But the APSP and the Uhuru House and its related political movement can only be described as fringe, bit players on the American political scene whose previous statements and stances already mirrored the Kremlin’s line decades before Aleksandr Ionov came along. It makes one wonder why the FBI targeted such marginal groups with little to no impact on the broader political process, and whether an unstated goal of the raids was to put the entire domestic political advocacy community on notice that a domestic group with foreign connections is considered fair game for FBI scrutiny even if legitimate First Amendment activity is involved.”