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Joan Vennochi

Tarek Mehanna case puts First Amendment on trial

His mother, some jurors, and the ACLU shed tears for Tarek Mehanna, the 29-year-old Sudbury man who was sentenced last week to 17½ years in prison after a jury found him guilty of terrorist charges.

The rest of the country either cheered the outcome, or more probably, ignored it in favor of more pressing constitutional concerns — for example, George Zimmerman’s right to bear arms and use them against a teenager carrying a bag of candy.

But what the Mehanna verdict and sentence say about the status of free speech in America should be lamented by more than his family and the usual civil liberty champions.


Prosecutors said Mehanna, who grew up in an Islamic home and earned a doctorate in pharmacology, was a radical who praised Osama bin Laden and cheered the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He traveled to Yemen in 2004 in search of terrorism training so he could carry out jihad against US soldiers in Iraq.

But he never found a training camp. Instead, upon returning home, Mehanna promoted Al Qaeda’s ideology on the Internet, hoping to attract followers. He translated Al Qaeda-promoted information and posted horrible videos glorifying suicide bombings and holy war. Prosecutors argued the translations provided “material support” for terrorists.

Mehanna’s beliefs are ugly and objectionable. But — as civil liberty devotees have been asking since his arrest — does translating propaganda reflecting his beliefs and posting it make him a terrorist?

A jury said yes. Still, before sentencing, one juror hoped to ask US District Court Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. to show mercy. The case, said juror Beverly A. Richards, posed a moral dilemma for those asked to weigh Mehanna’s actions as a young man against a long future behind bars. With so much gray area, “it’s scary, from every angle,” Richards told Globe reporter Milton J. Valencia. The judge turned down her request, calling it unorthodox.


After Mehanna was sentenced, Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, declared: “It’s official. There is a Muslim exception to the First Amendment.”

The case is cited as another example of the federal government’s crackdown on Americans who support Al Qaeda and travel to foreign lands to seek terrorism training. Yet prosecutors clearly went beyond Mehanna’s travels, which were fruitless, to his Internet posts and their potential to radicalize like-minded individuals. Testifying before Congress a year ago, FBI Director Robert Mueller asserted, “The increase and availability of extremist propaganda in English can exacerbate the problem. Ten years ago, in the absence of the Internet, extremists would have operated in relative isolation, unlike today.”

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz insisted that the Mehanna case had nothing to do with religion or free speech but rather with prosecuting people who engage in criminal conduct.

But First Amendment defenders believe the verdict in Mehanna’s case stretches the meaning of “criminal conduct” to include translations. As leading civil libertarian Harvey Silverglate argues in a blog post, “I could make a translation of ‘Mein Kampf,’ and it would not mean that I should be arrested for having urged the killing of Jews and Gypsies.”

After Mehanna, it might. But the slippery slope that civil libertarians worry about is not what rallies the public today. Most Americans do not think the Mehanna verdict will ever infringe on their free speech rights, just as they do not think they will ever end up naked and humiliated because of a recent US Supreme Court decision allowing strip searches for those arrested for even the most minor offenses.


What we fear more than the loss of personal freedoms is our perceived loss of control over people who might hurt us.

Someone driving a car without a license plate could be fleeing from an Oklahoma City-like bombing, and, once arrested, deserves to be strip-searched. Someone who translates vile propaganda and posts it on the Internet might attract followers who hatch a terrorist plot — and should be prosecuted before that happens.

Someone young, black, and hooded might be up to no good and should be challenged — particularly when walking through a gated community. The person who questions him has a right to carry a licensed and legally obtained gun and to stand his ground. This is America, after all.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.