S.C. senator pushes bill to eliminate law requiring 'subversive' groups to register

Legislators want to repeal 1951 statute

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COLUMBIA --- In South Carolina, any group that plans to overthrow the federal government -- or any other government in the U.S. -- must register its activities.

It's the law.

Now some state legislators are looking to repeal it.

State Sen. Larry Martin said Monday the 1951 McCarthy-era statute that's meant to deter communists is one more thing making South Carolina look bad, since bloggers and talk radio picked up on it last month. A misconception spread that the statute, on the books for nearly six decades, had only recently become law.

Legislators said some constituents in this deeply red state were concerned it was aimed at conservative activists.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," said Martin, R-Pickens. The law was enacted "at a time they thought it was the best response to the communist scare. It's long outlived its usefulness, if ever it had one."

His bill to repeal it comes up for debate this week in a Senate panel.

The "subversive activities registration act" requires any group that advocates overthrowing local, state or federal governments to pay $5 and register the group's name, its leader's address, beliefs, all members living in South Carolina and check yes or no to the following: "Do you or your organization directly or indirectly advocate, advise, teach or practice the duty or necessity of controlling, seizing or overthrowing the government?"

Those that don't file face up to a $25,000 fine and 10 years in prison. When enacted, it was seen as a way to prosecute someone who gets caught not filing, instead of having to prove they were fomenting insurrection, Martin said.

"I'm sure Osama bin Laden would be amused," he added.

Until February, no one had registered, said Secretary of State Mark Hammond.

Now, about 10 have filed, apparently in jest, as political commentary. Two actually paid the fee, according to his office.

"Our organization is in fact so dastardly that we have refused to remit the fee," writes someone claiming to represent the Las Vegas-based Alliance of the Libertarian Left.

Other filers include American Citizens for the Extermination of South Carolina, based in "the corner of Fire and Brimstone," S.C., listing the state's congressmen as its members. One New York filer chastises the state for having such a silly form, noting his subversive act is voting, while a North Carolina writer asks facetiously -- on a letter titled "What??!!!" in big, bold letters -- "Why are you only charging $5 for registration?"

"Some folks did fear this could be used in an attempt to squelch their voice," said state Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Mauldin, a co-sponsor of a matching House bill to repeal the law. "To clear up the confusion, let's just remove it."

State Rep. Tommy Stringer, the main sponsor, said people panicked unnecessarily about the law restricting civil liberties, particularly since the wording exempts labor unions and patriotic groups that don't aim to overthrow the government. It also specifies that it does not infringe on free speech rights. People protesting peacefully aren't subversive, he said.

"What disturbed me was the second part dealing with foreign corporations," said the Landrum Republican, noting it requires the registration of groups "subject to foreign control," including corporations financially supported by foreign governments.

"We're trying to bring business in, not potentially embarrass them for coming here," he said, calling it -- simply -- a badly written, unnecessary law.

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reader54 03/01/10 - 10:08 pm
This law, if read in it's

This law, if read in it's entirety, is so ambiguous and broad that it could be taken as prosecuting free speech. Another embarrassment for S.C.

Nat the Cat
Nat the Cat 03/01/10 - 10:13 pm
Seriously, has anyone ever

Seriously, has anyone ever registered under this law? No one, and I mean no one could be that stupid! Well, I take that back. I just read an editorial by Lowell "Greenbama."

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