Bringing students to watch Congress at work is chancy. On a good day they might hear Sens. Paul Simon, Howard Metzenbaum, Carl Levin and Ted Kennedy speak with passionate commitment about the need to protect the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment. On a bad day they might hear that the very same senators are cosponsors of a bill that would use the justified abhorrence of the PLO to weaken the First Amendment.
The bill has been introduced in the Senate by Charles Grassley of Iowa, and its House counterpart has been proudly initiated by Jack Kemp of New York. It's called the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1987, and, among other things, it forbids Americans' receiving anything of value, except informational material, from the Palestine Liberation Organization. What happens to a newspaper that runs an ad after the bill has been passed protesting the law -- an ad paid for with PLO money? Does the paper get indicted?
At the core of this bill -- crafted to make those who vote against it appear to be soft on terrorism when they're next up for reelection -- is a provision that would close the two PLO offices in the United States. No one could establish such an office henceforth "at the behest or direction of, or with funds provided by the PLO." (There has been an observer mission connected with the United Nations in New York since 1974, and an information office in Washington since 1978.)
In speaking for the bill on the Senate floor, cosponsor Robert Dole noted solemnly, "We are not seeking to undermine anyone's rights -- neither the rights of any Americans nor the rights of anyone anywhere else in the world." That's the kind of prologue that gives the First Amendment the shakes. "We are seeking," added the senator, "to strengthen the defenses of this country against the real, physical threat that the PLO represents."
Factions of the PLO have murdered and maimed elsewhere, sometimes with the smiling approval of Yasser Arafat. But there has been no claim that the PLO offices in the United States have been involved in terrorism or in conspiracies to commit terrorism. Even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has been mightily pushing this bill, admits that. And there are laws that would put away anyone caught in such crimes.
Rep. Barney Frank, the pungent civil libertarian from Massachusetts, thinks the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1987 is foolish. "It's a mistake," he says, "for friends of Israel to put this much energy into the bill because even if it passes, it's not going to accomplish anything with regard to terrorism. Oh, the bill might accomplish one thing. By outlawing the PLO here, it'll create an aura of martyrdom around the PLO."
Morton Halperin, who runs the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, points out that "it is clearly a violation of the rights of free speech and association to bar American citizens from acting as agents seeking to advance the political ideology of any organization, even if that organization is based abroad." And integral to exercising those rights of speech and association is the corollary ability to have an office, a staff and a phone listing. Under the bill, PLO supporters still do have the right to stand on street corners passing out literature, and they are also free to sleep under the bridges at night.
Americans, moreover, whether they have any use for the PLO or not, also have the First Amendment right to receive ideas, including propaganda. The senators and representatives cosponsoring this bill in such large numbers obviously forget, as one dissenting congressman, Don Edwards of California, told me: "Our country was built on dialogue."
Should the bill be passed -- or should the State and Justice departments decide to close the Washington office unilaterally in order to short-circuit the anti-terrorism act -- a powerful precedent will have been set. Why not close down the offices of the African National Congress? It has engaged in violence and says it has no choice but to continue to.
An official of a Jewish organization that does not support the bill notes wryly that if such legislation had been on the books while Jews were trying to bring the state of Israel into being, the Irgun Zvai Leumi would have been on the proscribed list. That fierce group engaged in terrorism against the British in Palestine for what it considered urgent nationalistic reasons.
Seeing the names of Jack Kemp and Jesse Helms on these bills is not surprising. But some of the other cosponsors -- including Barbara Mikulski, Bob Packwood and Arlen Specter -- show how shallow the attachment to the First Amendment is when you can pick up easy political points by straight-arming it. Something for kids to think about in this bicentennial year.