In Balancing Freedom and Security, A Tale of Two Cities

All this talk of Edward Snowden and the tension between freedom and security has reminded me that back in 2006, as part of a documentary history of First Amendment Rights in America, we included Section 215 of the Patriot Act as one of the book’s 37 primary sources.

I think what we wrote then has relevance now, but you, dear reader, will have the final word on that point. Enjoy —

Emotions were running high as more than two hundred people crowded into the city council chamber in Eugene, Oregon, on November 25, 2002. At issue was Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA Patriot Act), passed by Congress a month after the terrorist attacks at the Pentagon and World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Following passionate testimony from citizens, the Eugene City Council voted unanimously to support a statement opposing the Patriot Act. It reads in part: “We resolve that, to the extent legally possible, no city resources, particularly administrative or law enforcement funds, will be used for unconstitutional activities conducted under the USA Patriot Act or recent Executive Orders which permit activities listed above.”

With that vote, Eugene became the fifteenth city in the United States, and the first in Oregon, to adopt such a resolution. By the summer of 2005, seven states and 382 cities and counties had taken similar action. Indeed, the debate over the Patriot Act had moved an extraordinary number of Americans to exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech, petition, and assembly.

Other city governments took the opposite view, turning aside efforts to condemn the Patriot Act. In Springfield, Oregon, located on the outskirts of Eugene, the city council issued a statement in support of the act. Councilor John Woodrow explained the city’s officials position this way: “I would submit that, as elected officials, the Springfield City Council has either sworn or affirmed to uphold the Constitution and the Laws of the United States and the State of Oregon. As such, we should not take a position of noncompliance with federal law, nor is it necessary to pass a resolution or take a position affirming compliance with federal law, as we do that per our oath of office.”

The backdrop for the debates in Eugene and Springfield is a question as old as the republic: To what extent, if any, does the demand for more security necessitate greater restrictions on individual liberties? Key events in American history, from the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 to the Vietnam-era legal battle between the New York Times and Washington Post and the federal government, illustrate the ongoing challenge of negotiating the tension between security and freedom in times of national emergency.

The “war on terrorism” in the twenty-first century has provoked a vigorous new debate in the United States about how to balance the demands of security with the need to protect personal freedoms. Did Congress go too far – or perhaps not far enough – when it passed the USA Patriot Act?

Critics of the act argue that the 342-page bill was rushed through the House and Senate, and passed with little debate. While acknowledging the need for additional law enforcement tools after September 11, they charge that some of the act’s provisions and some of the executive orders issued in wake of the act’s passage are unconstitutional. Proponents respond that Congress was right to move quickly after the attacks to meet the heightened threat from domestic and international terrorists. They argue that changes in the law under the Patriot Act do little more than apply existing legal principles to the fight against terrorism. Resolutions opposing the Patriot Act in Eugene and elsewhere have focused on provisions that give the government expanded powers to detain people suspected of terrorism; make it easier for the government to obtain records about people from libraries, hospitals, businesses and elsewhere; and provide the government with new tools for wiretaps and searches.

The biggest lightning rod for opposition to the act has been section 215, the provision that expands the power of federal investigators to obtain library, bookstore, and other records secretly. This section amends the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, enacted in 1978 to prescribe procedures for requesting judicial authorization for electronic surveillance and physical search of people engaged in espionage or international terrorism against the U.S. on behalf of a foreign power. Under this amendment, it is no longer only the personal records of suspected foreign agents that can be accessed. The government may now obtain the personal records of any citizen as long as the information being sought is, in the words of the Patriot Act, “part of an authorized investigation to protect the United States from international terrorism.”

Librarians, civil libertarians, and others from across the political spectrum worry that section 215 gives the government too much police power without enough accountability. Prior to the Patriot Act, federal investigators needed a warrant and probable cause that a crime had been committed to access otherwise private library records. Now, critics charge, records of people who are not themselves suspects can be searched with minimal judicial oversight as long as the government asserts that the search is part of an investigation to protect against terrorism. Moreover, section 215 places a gag order on the person who is required to turn over the records. A librarian, for example, may not notify anyone that his or her records are being searched.

In reports to Congress, the Justice Department says that section 215 has not been used to obtain library or bookstore records. Critics point to a 2002 University of Illinois study that found 178 public libraries in the U.S. had received FBI visits in the first year after the Patriot Act passed. The Justice Department maintains that those requests for records were part of criminal investigations and were not authorized under section 215. Many librarians and booksellers, however, contend that the threat of secret searches has had a chilling effect on First Amendment freedoms. They worry that people may avoid borrowing or buying books that might trigger FBI interest. Some libraries have installed computer systems that erase a library user’s records as soon as a book is returned. And a number of cities have adopted resolutions calling on libraries to post section 215 warnings and advising bookstores to regularly destroy customer records.

During the testimony before the city council in Eugene, many citizens voiced concerns about the potential for the federal government to abuse the powers granted under the Patriot Act. Misa Joo warned against accepting a mentality of fear similar to the one that led to the internment of her grandparents and other Japanese Americans during World War II. Nadia Sindi claimed that Muslim Americans were suffering persecution as a result of religious profiling. She described how the FBI had searched her home, even though she had been an American citizen for thirty-two years.

On a national level, objections to portions of the Patriot Act have created an unusual coalition. Groups ranging from the conservative Americans for Tax Reform to the liberal People for the American Way joined together in the fall of 2003 to support legislation that would scale back the act. And in the spring of 2005, a coalition of 38 Republicans and 199 Democrats supported an amendment to a funding bill that blocked section 215 as it applies to libraries and bookstores.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other civil liberties groups challenged the constitutionality of parts of the Patriot Act. In a 2003 press release from the ACLU, associate legal director Ann Beeson warned of government abuses of power under the act: “Sadly, our government has an ugly history of using its investigative powers to squelch dissent. We saw it during the Japanese internments of World War II, the Red Scare of the 1950’s and the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and now we see it in the post-9/11 investigations and detention of Arabs and Muslims.”

The U.S. Department of Justice mounted a vigorous defense of the act, arguing that it “has played a key part – and often the leading role – in a number of successful operations to protect innocent Americans from the deadly plans of terrorists dedicated to destroying America and our way of life.” According to the Justice Department, the act makes only “modest, incremental changes in the law,” and contains adequate safeguards for the protection of civil liberties. In fact, Justice Department officials characterize many of the objections to the Patriot Act as “myths” that need to be dispelled. For example, against the charge that section 215 gives overly broad powers to monitor the personal records of citizens in libraries and other places, the Justice Department argues that “historically, terrorists and spies have used libraries to plan and carry out activities that threaten our national security. If terrorists or spies use libraries, we should not allow them to become safe havens for their terrorist or clandestine activities.”

In sum, what many civil libertarians see as abuse of state power, the government views as an essential tool in national security investigations. According to the ACLU, the Patriot Act unconstitutionally expands the government’s authority to spy on American citizens. By contrast, the Justice Department insists that investigators have no interest in the reading habits of ordinary Americans.

Many of the Patriot Act’s provisions, including those intended to enhance border security, toughen penalties for existing federal crimes related to acts of terrorism, and strengthening of federal money-laundering laws, enjoy strong public support. But in addition to section 215, other portions of the act covering secret searches of private homes and businesses, wiretaps, and changes in immigration laws have sparked widespread debate. Given the complexity of the act’s many provisions – and the secrecy surrounding terrorism investigation – understanding the constitutional arguments for and against the USA Patriot Act is challenging, to say the least. But however confusing and complex, the act has become a symbolic target for Americans who are concerned about expanded government powers to fight an open-ended war on terrorism. Indeed, the grassroots movement that led to the resolution in Eugene and more than three hundred other communities continues to spread across the nation.

The debate over the Patriot Act, much like previous debates during other times of national crisis throughout American history, is a reminder of the importance of First Amendment rights in a democracy. Once again, Americans on all sides of the debate are speaking out, organizing, and petitioning – and by so doing helping to define the future of democratic freedom in the United States. The crowded city council meetings in Eugene, Springfield, and across America are powerful reminders of how much Americans care about their freedoms.

In the spring of 1944, another time when America’s character was deeply tested, Federal Appeals Court judge Learned Hand spoke to a crowd of mostly new Americans in New York City’s Central Park about what it takes to sustain freedom in a time of national crisis: “I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.”

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