We’re Only as Free as They Want Us to Be

Journalist Barrett Brown, a woman who wanted to become a member of ISIS and a rapper named Tiny Doo. Not a list of people that seem to fit together in many ways ordinarily but here’s the rub: Each will be spending portions of his or her life in prison.

Brown is guilty of, as he puts it, “… copying and pasting a link to a publicly available file that other journalists were also linking to without being prosecuted.” He is poised to spend five years in prison.

Shannon Conley is a 19 year old who became transfixed with Islam and planned to go to Turkey to aid ISIS as a nurse. She was arrested in the Denver International Airport and may spend as many as four years in prison.

Lastly, Brandon Duncan, also known by the gangster rapper stage name Tiny Doo, arrested and jailed eight months ago. He faces 25 years to life for violating a little-known California statute making it illegal to “benefit from gang activities.” How did Duncan benefit from gang activity? Prosecutors allege he benefited financially from gang activity in 2013, but they admit they have no knowledge that he actually participated in gang activity himself.

These three individuals have had their lives ripped away from them by the state for expressing themselves. Brown is guilty of sharing something that was already publicly available. Conley is guilty of (at worst) of being naive and foolish about her beliefs. And Duncan is guilty of rapping about how tough (as he puts it) “urban street life” can be.

The state’s answer to all of these things is the one size fits all hammer of trial, sentencing and prison time. In each case the prosecutors want to “send a message” and ensure that no one ever commits these “crimes again.” But if this was actually a viable tactic we’d see murders very infrequently and see recidivism in prisons even less. But neither is the case.

In addition, it’s clear that in none of the cases does the state has just cause to throw these people in prison and have them lose years of their lives. The government continues to criminalize whistle-blowing and those who help spread its message. The government continues to penalize those who make mistakes without letting them learn on their own. And the government continues to penalize and target African Americans who try to come to grip with the realities of race and poverty in America and make something valuable out of their experiences.

Free speech? Only as free as the state wants it to be.

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