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What's in a Name? The Mismeasure of Terrorism

By Marjorie Heins

A lawsuit filed last month charged that investigators in the State of Washington had included antiwar protest organizers on a domestic terrorism list.1 The charge should not have been surprising: in 2008, documents released in response to public records requests showed that the Maryland State Police, likewise, were labeling antiwar activists, protesters against the death penalty, and other human rights campaigners as terrorists. Several nuns were among those listed.2

In 2006, Congress passed the “Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act,” making it a federal crime to “damage or cause the loss of any real or personal property (including animals or records) used by an animal enterprise.” An “animal enterprise” was defined to include any “commercial or academic enterprise that uses or sells animals or animal products for profit, food or fiber production, agriculture, education, research, or testing.” Thus, what used to be nonviolent civil disobedience was redefined as “terrorism.”

“Terrorism” has many other definitions in U.S. law; some are remarkably broad. The 1996 “Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act” authorizes the Secretary of State to designate “foreign terrorist organizations” (“FTOs”) based on “national security” considerations, including “foreign relations” and “economic interests of the United States.” Translated, that means a liberation struggle can become a terrorist organization when the U.S. is friendly with the government that the organization is opposing. The African National Congress—listed as an FTO for decades—is the most famous example of the political considerations that go into the foreign terrorist list.

Today’s debates over government surveillance are frequently framed in terms of a necessary balance between protecting civil liberties and fighting terrorism. Rarely do the debaters note how loose, broad, and politically driven governmental definitions of terrorism actually are. If the government defined terrorism more narrowly, and strictly limited it to what most of us understand by the term, then perhaps we wouldn't have to sacrifice our First and Fourth Amendment rights.

In occupied France in the early 1940s, the Gestapo and its collaborators in the French police called those in the Resistance terrorists.3 It turns out that the word has long been a convenient way to demonize political opponents.

July 17, 2013

1. See Colin Moynihan, "Defendant Added to Protestors' Spying Suit," NY Times, 6/24/13,

2. Tom LoBianco, "Protesting Nuns Branded Terrorists," Washington Times, 10/10/08, 1.

3. See, e.g., Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France (HarperCollins, 2011).



The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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