I blogged last week about the Defense Department equating protests to “low-level terrorism” in an online training exam; today, the DoD says it will remove the question from its training module.
American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California staff attorney Ann Brick, who’d coauthored a letter of complaint to the department last week, said this afternoon she still hasn’t received a direct reply, but a Pentagon spokesman was quoted in a Fox News article earlier today:
“They should have made it clearer there’s a clear difference between illegal violent demonstrations and peaceful, constitutionally protected protests,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Les Melnyk said on Thursday.
Asked when a protest becomes an “illegal, violent demonstration,” Melnyk said, “I’m not a lawyer. I couldn’t get into the specifics of when you cross the line.”
“If you’re doing physical damage to people or property, that could fall into that,” he said.
Of the Defense Department’s 3 million employees, 1,546 took the exam, Melnyk said. All will be sent e-mails “explaining the error and the distinction between lawful protests and unlawful violent protests,” he wrote in an e-mail.
“We’re pleased that they’re withdrawing it but it’s very troubling that the distinction between violent actions and peaceful protests got lost in the shuffle,” Brick told me this afternoon. “In addition to antiterrorism training, I think there is a need for some training on basic constitutional values.”
“It’s disturbing to think that the word ‘protest’ is automatically conjuring up an image of unlawful conduct. The one that should be conjured up is one of people exercising their constitutional rights – that should be the immediate image that pops to mind,” she said. “Even if it’s loud or angry, it’s still protected.”
The tenuous nature of the mass protests now unfolding in Iran should give Americans an even deeper appreciation of their right to dissent, Brick said.
The Fox News report notwithstanding, “we still need to have a conversation with the Department of Defense,” Brick said, to discuss how the question made it into the test in the first place, what’s being done to prevent such things in the future, and what kind of training might be undertaken.