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FBI Urged to Dump Extremism Website Aimed at Schools

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A coalition of groups, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union, asked the FBI on Tuesday to dismantle its “Don’t Be a Puppet” website, which the agency created to educate youth about violent extremism but has been criticized as targeting American Muslims and encouraging the policing of thoughts in schools.

“This website will seriously damage trusted relationships between educators and students and cannot be described as a legitimate or credible law enforcement tool,” the coalition said in a letter to FBI Director James Comey.

“The website would have teachers and community leaders ... determine whether views are extremist or radical and report them to police, inappropriately discouraging views protected by the First Amendment,” the letter said, adding:

“Not only will ‘Don’t Be a Puppet’ hinder the free exchange of speech, ideas, and debate on controversial topics because students are afraid of being labeled suspect and being reported to the police, but it will also isolate students and possibly subject them to bullying.”

The FBI unveiled the interactive website in February for use in schools to teach teens about violent extremism groups, both foreign and domestic, and to try to keep them from being radicalized and recruited. The website encourages students to report suspicious behavior to teachers or others, including law enforcement.

The website is an effort to combat what the FBI says is a growing problem: the recruitment, especially over the Internet, of youth by violent extremism groups. But since being brought online, the website has been the subject of mounting criticism and news media reports. The Journal published a story March 21.

The FBI declined comment on the request that the website be dismantled. The website acknowledges that extremist thoughts are not illegal, and it encourages students to be tolerant and inclusive of all people.

In its letter to Comey, the coalition said the website “reinforces the idea that holding views that may be outside the mainstream equates to support for violent extremism” and that the website perpetuates the belief among some people that Muslims are prone to engage in extremist violence.

It also attacked the website’s list of possible warning signs of someone planning to commit violent extremism. The list of possible warning signs includes “talking about traveling to places that sound suspicious” and “using code words or unusual language.”

The coalition said in its letter:

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“A trip to France or Germany, which are home to many far-right groups, is not likely to be considered suspicious by most teachers and community leaders. Although there should be nothing inherently suspicious about traveling either to Saudi Arabia or Iraq, where some Muslim holy sites are located, bias could lead individuals to report innocent, constitutionally protected activity to law enforcement.”

The coalition said bias “also could easily lead individuals to conclude that speaking foreign languages, such as Arabic, amounts to using ‘unusual language.’”

In addition to the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee and the ACLU, the groups that signed the letter to the FBI included the Friends of Human Rights, the Muslim Legal Fund of America, the Sikh Coalition and Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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