Civil Liberties

Defending the Bill of Rights

A diverse movement to protect civil liberties is bringing together strange bedfellows: far-right militias and lobbying groups, left and liberal NGOs and community organizations, libertarians and the NRA.
I can remember sitting in a stuffy classroom with dull, outdated textbooks reading and dutifully reciting the Bill of Rights. I'm sure I am not the only one with this memory -- Amendments 1 through 10 of the Constitution, ratified on Dec. 15, 1791, are considered a cornerstone of our country's government and history. As a seventh-grader at the time, the list of "shall nots" seemed dry and irrelevant.

Not anymore.

It is all too clear to me now that these amendments are essential to our way of life and the freedoms that we have historically enjoyed in the U.S. They are a key part of a Constitution that as it looks on paper, current human rights abuses and civil liberties infringements aside, is admired and lauded by democracy proponents around the world.

But now the Bill of Rights is in dire danger.

  • First Amendment:...Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or the right of the people peaceably to assemble...

  • Fourth Amendment: ...The right of people to be secure against unreasonable search and seizures shall not be violated....

  • Fifth Amendment:...No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law....

  • Sixth Amendment:...In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation, and have the assistance of counsel for his defense...

Thanks to the USA PATRIOT Act, passed in October 2001 in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, these tenets and the rest of the Bill are no longer held sacred.

The government is already freely violating them in the name of the war on terrorism. Speech and assembly are curtailed and spied upon; belongings can be seized and secretly searched; people can be detained indefinitely without counsel or public trials.

And legislation being referred to as the PATRIOT Act II, which was being drafted in secret by the Justice Department until news of it was leaked to the press this month, promises to be even more insidious. If passed by Congress, it will further gut the Bill of Rights, with measures as extreme as the expatriation of lifelong citizens.

But "We the People" have not taken these changes lying down. Committees to Defend the Bill of Rights exist in about 150 municipalities and counties around the country, and so far 36 cities, towns or counties have passed resolutions in defense of the Bill of Rights.

"There are two to five new ones passed each week," said Nancy Talanian, co-director of the Northampton, Mass - based national Bill of Rights Defense Committee. "It's hard to even keep up with them all."

The first resolution was passed by Ann Arbor, Mich. last January, with Denver and several other cities passing resolutions in the following months. In May the national Web site ( coordinating and tracking the resolutions was set up.

Part of a diverse movement to protect our civil liberties, these committees are bringing together strange bedfellows -- far right militias and lobbying groups, left and liberal NGOs and community organizations, libertarian think-tanks. Even the residents of proverbial "middle America" who until recently never felt they had a reason to distrust or fear the government are now sending letters, calling politicians and hitting the streets in support of the Bill of Rights.

"When the first Patriot Act was passed, there wasn't much movement from the public," said Talanian. "People didn't know anything about it and were still scared from Sept. 11, so they just wanted to be protected. This time is different."

The administration's assault on civil liberties and basic rights became apparent shortly after the institution of the USA PATRIOT Act (an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) on Oct. 21, 2001.

The Associated Press published a list of fundamental changes in Americans' legal rights resulting from the PATRIOT Act. Freedom of information, freedom of association, freedom of speech, right to legal representation, freedom from unreasonable searches, right to a speedy and public trial and right to liberty have all been abridged since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the A.P. Among other things, the government has urged bureaucrats to resist requests for public records, has threatened to prosecute librarians who don't turn over information about people's reading habits, and has monitored religious and political organizations without suspecting any criminal activity.

But the second PATRIOT Act, officially titled the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, will dwarf the civil liberties incursions of the first one.

The second PATRIOT Act, officially titled the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, will dwarf the civil liberties incursions of the first one.

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"If the PATRIOT Act II goes into effect then we're really in trouble," said Nancy Chang, an attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. "It penalizes people who provide material support to organizations designated as terrorist by the attorney general -- for example we could lose our citizenship just for offering trainings on International Human Rights Law to people they consider to be terrorists."

It would also automatically invalidate the "Red Squad" consent decrees against political spying by local police departments which are in place in many cities. Chang noted that the act was being drafted behind closed doors without information being released to the public or input from Congress.

"There wouldn't have been any acknowledgment of it except for the fact that it was leaked," she said. "It makes one question whether the government's intention was to trot it out to Congress when we're in a time of high stress, like war with Iraq. That's what they did with the first one."

The city resolutions can't actually supersede federal mandates, but they can influence how local police departments and other municipal bodies act, for example preventing police from carrying out routine racial profiling or political spying that has not been specifically requested by the FBI.

"And the resolutions also make people aware of what's going on," said Talanian.

The resolutions have been passed in traditionally liberal enclaves, like Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Eugene, Oregon. But they have also been passed in industrial, suburban and heartland locations: Detroit; Fairbanks, Alaska; Alachua County, Florida; and Takoma Park, Maryland, to name a few.

While many of the resolution efforts were spearheaded by left-leaning peace or interfaith groups, right-wingers and libertarians also have deep affection for the Bill of Rights. Right-wing militias and groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) are synonymous with the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and conservatives ranging from segregationists to opponents of reproductive choice lean heavily on the 10th Amendment giving lawmaking power to state governments. Right-wingers and libertarians are also ardent proponents of freedom of speech and property and privacy rights.

"Especially on the issue of privacy and surveillance is where a lot of these left and right groups have come together," said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the Illinois ACLU. "There's an ongoing distrust of the government on the right. But it is interesting the degree to which many [right] groups which opposed the government in the past have felt a need to support the administration now."

The fight against the Total Information Awareness program, which would have given the government open-ended powers to track a person's banking, credit card use, travel, health and other personal information over the internet, brought together a powerful opposition coalition including the ACLU, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Americans for Tax Reform and the Eagle Forum. Ultimately, these opponents were able to significantly curb the implementation of Total Information Awareness as well as the TIPS program, which would have enlisted mail carriers, meter readers and other private and civil employees in everyday spying.

"We were very instrumental in stopping the TIPS program, and we are opposed to national ID cards and federalizing drivers' licenses," said Phyllis Schlafly, president of the conservative Eagle Forum. "There are a lot of bad implications to these things. We don't want the government monitoring the actions of innocent citizens."

This may have been the first time Schlafly, a famous right-wing pundit and anti-feminist, found herself working hand in hand with the likes of left-wing anti-war groups.

Tim Lynch, director of the libertarian Cato Institute's program on criminal justice, noted that while Cato doesn't work in coalitions, it has made defending the Bill of Rights a major part of its publishing and public debate work.

"We're especially concerned about military tribunals, Bush designating people as enemy combatants, arresting people without arrest warrants," he said.

While Lynch acknowledged that there is a pan-partisan movement to defend the bill of rights going on, he said a large number of people are still unaware of the full extent of the blows our civil liberties are taking.

"So many people are understandably frightened by the risk of terrorist attacks that they are all too willing to believe they will be safer if the president just passes another anti-terror law," he said. "They lose sight of what they're giving up."

Kari Lydersen writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. This article is part of an ongoing series, "And Liberty for All," which she writes weekly for AlterNet.