Time to get serious about the Bill of Rights
Originally published as an Op-Ed in The Union (Grass Valley, CA)
December 14, 2002
I just got the call from the doctor. It doesn’t look good. I don’t think the patient is going to pull through.
It’s sad, but by the time you read this, the Bill of Rights will probably be dead. Its vital signs are dangerously low at the time of this writing, and there’s little reason to expect it to recover.
Confused? Perhaps you haven’t seen the injuries the Bill has suffered in the “war on terror.” Let’s take a look – you can make your own prognosis. The vital organs of the Bill of Rights are its freedoms, so that’s what we’ll look at. The quotes I include are from the “Overview of Changes to Legal Rights” that was published by the Associated Press in September of this year.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION: “Government may monitor religious and political institutions without suspecting criminal activity to assist terror investigation.” Not only that, but the ban on COINTELPRO activities – the covert infiltration and intentional disruption of “problematic” political organizations, made infamous in the ’60s and ’70s – has been lifted.
RIGHT TO PETITION FOR A REDRESS OF GRIEVANCES: “Government has closed once-public immigration hearings, has secretly detained hundreds of people without charges, and has encouraged bureaucrats to resist public records requests.” Recently, Congress granted a wide-ranging Freedom of Information Act exemption to the Homeland Security Agency, effectively cloaking the actions of hundreds of thousands of federal employees. It also granted them expanded powers – and laid the groundwork for a comprehensive “Total Information Awareness” database of all public activities of all Americans. It’s hard to petition the government for a redress of grievances when we can’t find out what the government is doing.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH: “Government may prosecute librarians or keepers of any other records if they tell anyone that the government subpoenaed information related to a terror investigation.” Taking a rare political stand, librarians have banded together in large numbers to oppose the “USA-PATRIOT Act.” The Act requires them to release library records to federal agents (who don’t need to have proof of wrongdoing or involvement with terrorism), and threatens them with hefty penalties if they tell anyone about it. Similar requirements are imposed upon most other places you do business with.
RIGHT TO LEGAL REPRESENTATION: “Government may monitor federal prison jailhouse conversations between attorneys and clients, and deny lawyers to Americans accused of crimes.” The Sixth Amendment requires that the accused have the “assistance of counsel for his defense.” Does it still count as assistance if the defense attorney is hobbled by a lack of attorney-client privacy? I guess if some Americans can be tried without any lawyer at all, those who have only lost attorney-client privacy should consider themselves lucky.
FREEDOM FROM UNREASONABLE SEARCHES: “Government may search and seize Americans’ papers and effects without probable cause to assist terror investigation.” Law enforcement has been granted near-total discretion over what constitutes a “reasonable” search, and the Fourth Amendment requirement of “probable cause” is on its way to becoming a distant memory. Judges, formerly the last line of defense against unreasonable searches and seizures, have simply been pushed out of the way – relegated to the role of rubber-stamping any warrant request that law enforcement claims could be useful to them.
RIGHT TO A SPEEDY AND PUBLIC TRIAL: “Government may jail Americans indefinitely without a trial.” Not only that, but a no-longer-secret CIA directive allows the government to kill U.S. citizens without any criminal procedure whatsoever, as long as they can claim the American was an “enemy combatant” in the “war on terror.”
RIGHT TO DUE PROCESS: “Americans may be jailed without being charged or being able to confront witnesses against them.” See the above, and add optional military tribunals for anyone that the administration sees fit to designate a “terrorist” – a term that has yet to be clearly defined. Last year, FBI Director Louis Freeh testified to Congress about domestic terrorist organizations, listing not just the usual suspects such as the tree-spikers and saboteurs of labs, but also mentioning “anarchists and extreme socialist groups”, as well as the WTO protesters, the Workers World Party and others.
These are just some of the most grievous injuries the Bill of Rights has suffered since 9/11. There are too many to list them all. Are you still confused about why I’m claiming the Bill of Rights is dead? How many injuries do you think the highest law of the land can take and still be considered living? You might want to think about that one for a while.
While you’re thinking, come visit www.ncrights.org, the new home of the Nevada County Bill of Rights Defense Committee, where you can read background material on all that I’ve talked about here and learn about our plans to make Nevada County a “Civil Liberties Safe Zone.”
If you’re already concerned about the threats to liberty that I’ve discussed here, but unsure of what to do about it, you can start by joining our Procession and Funeral for the Bill of Rights tomorrow, starting at 1 p.m., at the top of the hill on Broad Street in Nevada City. Yes, in the rain, if need be. The time for paying lip service to the Bill of Rights is over. It’s time to get serious.