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Group Leader Toolkit: Legal Warning

Please Note: We We Are Not Providing Any Legal Advice, Either Through This Document or In General.
If you have any questions that you think require legal advice, we recommend that you identify a national legal organization with a chapter in your area, such as the National Lawyers Guild or, particularly for issues involving your constitutional rights, the American Civil Liberties Union.

Right-wing activists and media use stealthy tactics to delegitimize progressive groups, creating secret recordings of group meetings or off-the-cuff statements by their members. In 2015, anti-abortion group Live Action pretended to be a medical company, scheduled a lunch meeting with a Planned Parenthood employee, secretly recorded the conversation, and selectively edited the tape to suggest Planned Parenthood was breaking the law. In 2016, right-wing activist James O’Keefe published a heavily edited video that seemed to show Democratic Party officials discussing underhanded tactics to discredit Donald Trump.

Your group may not be the target of these tactics. And the good news is that even if you are targeted, a few tips to keep in mind can make sure you don’t get caught unaware:

Remember that what you and members of your group say about what you are doing might become public.

Most states allow people to secretly record conversations or meetings with other people without their consent. This doesn’t mean you need to be paranoid about everyone recording you, it just means it’s good to make a habit of talking about what your group is doing in positive terms. You are planning local advocacy focused on your members of congress to push them to represent you and your values: that is a fundamental American right.

Visible group members should be mindful of their personal online security.

If you post something on social media, under ordinary circumstances it probably won’t get much attention. If you get interviewed by your local TV station and your last post on Twitter could be interpreted negatively, someone might find it and spread it more widely, and with less context, than you want. It’s also a good practice to for you and the members of your group to try out basic privacy and personal security measures, such as privacy settings on Facebook or two-step verification on your email. Then, have a friend look briefly over the public-facing social media accounts of any visible members of your group to see if they find anything a right-wing activist could use against you.

Get to know your fellow activists.

For smaller groups, many new members will come through direct referrals from members already involved, but if your group has a big profile in your area and is attracting new members you don’t know previously, that’s great! It’s important to be mission-focused in your meetings and actions, but try to set aside time where possible for social or team-building activities between members — strong bonds between volunteers will help reinforce your commitment to action, and help you understand what priorities bring you all together.

Look out for suspicious situations and leave them quickly.

Attempts to discredit your group’s action can involve leading questions or inappropriate assertions by a right-wing activist that go unchallenged or are assented to by others. That’s natural: none of us likes to create confrontations or be disagreeable. But if someone you don’t know that well is saying or doing anything suspicious, think about how you respond and how to exit the situation. When conducting a public action such as a visit to a Member’s office, discuss ahead of time who will be participating and agree on your message; if you see a participant escalating their actions or rhetoric in a way that seems disruptive, consider how you will respond as individuals or as a group.

Let your own ethics and values be your guide.

You wouldn’t be standing indivisible if you didn’t have strong progressive values, rooted in an inclusive and respectful vision of our country. If you follow those values, it is a lot less likely that you’ll accidentally say or do something you don’t intend.