What do you think would happen to you if you read the Bill of Rights while being screened at the airport? Would you get blank looks? Signs of interest? Arrested?
As you will read in our latest Civil Liberties Update, T.P. Alexander, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force, was dragged to a holding cell and charged with disorderly conduct when she began to read the First Amendment. TSA screeners had already threatened her with arrest for reading the Fourth Amendment after they decided she should be put through the naked body scanning machine at Albuquerque International Airport instead of getting the pat down she had requested.
She is not the first American to be arrested for reading the Constitution. Back in 1923, a famous writer, Upton Sinclair, began a speech before a large group of striking longshoremen in San Pedro Harbor, California by reading aloud the Bill of Rights. Before he could finish the First Amendment, police from Los Angeles surrounded him and removed him from the speaker’s platform on ‘Liberty Hill.’
As Sinclair later wrote in a letter to the Los Angeles chief of police, the police officers told him that “this Constitution stuff does not go at the Harbor.” He was driven from one police station to another for many hours. The Los Angeles police apparently hoped to hold him indefinitely without anyone knowing his whereabouts.
However, someone tipped off Sinclair’s lawyer and he was eventually brought into court. Among the charges he faced was “discussing, arguing, orating and debating certain thoughts and theories…calculated to cause hatred and contempt of the government of the United States of America.”
Flash forward to the times we live in. Here in Massachusetts, a federal jury just convicted a young Muslim pharmacist, Tarek Mehanna, of engaging in expressive activities protected by the First Amendment. Like Sinclair, Mehanna was clearly ‘guilty’ of dissent – but that is not supposed to be a crime under our Constitution.
In Sinclair’s time, the Bill of Rights was treated as little more than a piece of paper by law enforcement. His action helped changed that as it led directly to the founding of the ACLU of Southern California to defend the Bill of Rights. In subsequent decades, social movements, committed individuals and organizations like the ACLU combined forces to demand that the US live up to the promise of its founding documents. As a result, the Bill of Rights began to be taken seriously at all levels of government.
The ‘war on terror’ has reversed this momentum. In this latest Update, you will see that the Bill of Rights is not just being ignored as it was in Sinclair’s day. It is being dismantled.
To our knowledge, President Obama had not yet signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012 by the time of writing (December 29). The NDAA eviscerates the due process protections of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments by permitting the indefinite detention of Americans who, like Tarek Mehanna, have unpopular views, including in military custody. If the NDAA’s indefinite detention provisions had been around in 1923, Sinclair could have found himself marooned indefinitely on a naval brig as a ‘communist’ agitator suspected of endangering national security.
The White House has reportedly been flooded with calls demanding that the President veto the NDAA – keep your calls jamming the White House comments line: 202-456-1111.
Tell President Obama that you expect him to do more than issue a “signing statement” objecting to certain parts of the NDAA which his successor can feel free to ignore. Say you expect him to defend the Constitution – after all, isn’t that what he swore to do when he took his oath of office?