Civil Liberties  
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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I can remember sitting in a stuffy classroom with dull, outdated textbooks reading and dutifully reciting the Bill of Rights.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.