Privacy SOS

Majority rules; civil liberties disappear

You thought Congress could never act in a bipartisan way? Have a look at its recent legislative record of cutting back on civil liberties and civil rights.

Take the First Amendment-unfriendly  “Federal Restricted Building and Grounds Improvement Act” which President Obama signed into law last week.  It passed the House 399-3 and had “unanimous consent” from the Senate. 

This so-called “trespass act” makes it easier to arrest and subjects to stiffer penalties any protester  “knowingly” in areas deemed “off limits” – the White House and grounds (including the fence area), the Vice-President’s residence and grounds, buildings or grounds being visited by someone guarded by the Secret Service and buildings or grounds where a “special event” of national significance is taking place. 

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which, among many awful things, brought the possibility of indefinite detention without charges or trials to the “homeland,” had a little bit of a struggle in the House (283-136) but sailed through the Senate 93-7. 

In an election year, Members of Congress apparently think that the danger represented by “terrorism” trumps any concern their constituents might have for the rights and protections guaranteed by the Constitution.  And if a recent poll of New York City residents is a snapshot of the nation they may be right.

Should the ramped up intelligence unit of the New York City police – advised by the CIA – be violating the civil rights and civil liberties of Muslims by spying on them in their mosques, communities and universities not just in the city, but throughout the state and in Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania?  Yes, said a majority of Quinnipiac University survey respondents, who are pleased by the way the NYPD is doing its job. 

How about when the focus shifts from Muslims, to the NYPD’s intense racial profiling of African Americans and Latinos, who have overwhelmingly been the innocent targets of NYPD “stop and frisk” activity in the streets of New York?   Of the 684,330 stop and frisks conducted in 2011 – 88 percent of which turned up no evidence of wrongdoing – only 9 percent targeted white people.  Anything wrong with that? 

Fifty-nine percent of the white people surveyed in the Quinnipiac poll didn’t think there was.  But overall, NYPD approval numbers dropped to 46 percent in response to this question.

If we are going to gain traction in efforts to push back the authoritarian national security surveillance state and its increasingly militarized police forces, we can’t just wait for shifts in Congressional or public opinion.  We have to take a stand for civil liberties in a way that educates both the public and our elected officials.

One way is to follow the example of the town of Northampton, MA, and get local officials to go on record opposing the NDAA.  

In addition to the materials produced by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the ACLU has produced a tool kit for community activists which includes a sample resolution on the NDAA for your town, city or state legislature and includes tips for getting it passed.

We the people can shame Congress by swelling the number of resolutions passed across the country – please take action and let us know the results.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.