The legislature in South Carolina has passed a “Subversive Activities Registration Act,” the upshot of which is that any “member of a subversive organization . . . who advocates, teaches, advises or practices the duty, necessity or propriety of controlling, conducting, seizing or overthrowing the government of the United States . . . shall register with the Secretary of State on the forms and at the times prescribed by him.” And there is a form! Remarkably short by government standards, it requires only your name and address, the name of your subversive organization, a statement of your beliefs, and the names and locations of any fellow conspirators. The form is to be sent in duplicate, accompanied by a $5 processing fee, to the SC Secretary of State’s office. Failure to file the form is punishable by fines of up to $25,000 and ten years in prison.
Now while this is on its face silly, it is a logical outgrowth of a variety of state and federal legislation designed at evading the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy. Any number of states have laws on the books requiring drug deal- ers to declare their illicit income (a holdover from Prohibition), or to preemptively buy “stamps” to place on their products certifying the drugs as properly taxed.
The expectation, obviously, is not that any dealers or ter- rorists will work through the state-approved channels, but that when they are caught, the penalties for tax evasion or failure to file will be added onto whatever fines or prison terms the criminal justice system prescribes – in essence, try- ing the accused first in court, and then in the hell of bureau- cracy, where guilt is presumed and the verdict almost always predetermined.
More worrying here, though, is the vagueness of the stat- ute and its potential chilling of speech. Certainly it is aimed at Islamic or other religious extremist terrorists, but what about secessionists, or militia members? Could a political blogger get rung up for making an off-hand remark about overthrow- ing the government in Columbia? Clarification is in order, but I’m not holding my breath for any: laws such at this are written to blur the boundary between legal and illegal. The more obscure they get, and the more expansive, the better the chances that you’re a criminal, and can be put away whenever the state decides.