Rights orgs to Georgia AG: Stop criminalizing dissent and privacy

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Georgia prosecutors in the case against Stop Cop City protester Ayla King have successfully argued that use of a "burner phone" is evidence of criminal intent. Press freedom and civil liberties groups find these arguments highly concerning. "Cop City" by Chad Davis. is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

A coalition of 25 civil liberties, environmental rights and press freedom organizations is demanding that Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr stop attempting to criminalize lawful technologies that activists, journalists and others use to protect their privacy.

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The group explained in a letter that prosecutors’ have ignored the First and Fourth Amendments by arguing that Stop Cop City protester Ayla King’s use of a “burner” phone is evidence of criminal intent, especially when there is no proof whatsoever that King used the phone unlawfully. King is one of the 61 co-defendants charged with violating Georgia’s expansive RICO Act for opposing the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, commonly known as “Cop City.”

The letter explains that people like King need to protect their privacy due to “the long history, in Georgia and throughout the United States, of law enforcement officers baselessly searching and seizing devices from individuals lawfully engaging in First Amendment activity. Accepting the prosecution’s theory, which can be summarized as ‘if you’re not doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide,’ requires extreme naivete regarding that history.”

Burner phones are just the latest tool used by activists, dissidents and journalists that the state of Georgia has tried to criminalize. They’ve even argued that writing down legal hotline numbers proves intent to commit a crime.

Cody Bloomfield, communications director of Defending Rights & Dissent, put it as follows: "First it was muddy shoes, now it’s so-called ‘burner phones.’ Is there anything the state of Georgia won’t say is proof of criminality? Our Constitution limits state power so political organizing, freedom of association, journalism, and privacy can flourish. The State of Georgia’s attempt to cast use of burner phones as evidence of criminal intent risks casting aspersions on anyone using legal privacy tools to organize, report, or communicate outside the shadow of the surveillance state.”

National Lawyers Guild, Director of Mass Defense, Xavier T. de Janon says, "In its political witch hunt against a powerful movement resisting policing, environmental destruction, and incarceration, the Georgia Attorney General is creating a dystopian reality. What crime is committed by having a prepaid, no-contract phone near a protest? According to the Georgia Attorney General, conspiracy to commit racketeering. The State of Georgia's position is dangerous, and it sets a chilling precedent, discouraging people from exercising their rights to protest and destroying privacy protections."

Seth Stern, director of advocacy at Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF), added that “journalists and activists alike use ‘burner’ phones and other anti-surveillance tools not because they intend to commit crimes but because police have an unfortunate habit of investigating and arresting them in retaliation for constitutionally protected activity. The fact that prosecutors are pursuing their ridiculous RICO case against King and their codefendants in the first place exemplifies exactly why people find it necessary to conceal their lawful communications from law enforcement.”

As the letter explains, that dangerous indictment seeks to criminalize an entire protest movement and alleged shared political ideology (anarchism) by citing alleged offenses by a few protesters and employing guilt by association theories to connect the dots. Civil liberties, human rights and press freedom organizations nationwide have raised alarms over the indictment.

The full letter is available here and embedded below.

For media inquiries, contact: [email protected] (Freedom of the Press Foundation), [email protected] (National Lawyers Guild), or [email protected](Defending Rights & Dissent).

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