ACLU Promotes "Safe and Free" America

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The Colorado Freedom

ACLU Promotes "Safe and Free" America

by Ari Armstrong, February 21, 2003

A group of activists met in a park where a drum and fife corps played patriotic music and speakers read from the Constitution. It sounded rather like a meeting of the Tyranny Response Team, but it was the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado following its July 4 "Liberty Run," as described by Director Sue Armstrong (no relation). What's ironic is that my friends on the left and the right often say the same things, they all practically worship the Bill of Rights, yet they tend to despise each other.

Sue Armstrong, Executive Director for Colorado's ACLU, meets with Laura Murphy of the D.C. office February 18.

I suppose I was the only non-Democrat in attendance at the February 18 ACLU annual meeting. Well, my wife is an independent, and there may have been a few more of those floating around. I seriously doubt anyone there was a Republican.

I figured I was there to make friends and find common ground, so I just smiled and nodded pleasantly when another fellow at my table mentioned he works for the state (government-school) teachers' union. I also only imagined asking the following question during Q&A: "Given that the largest civil rights organization in the world is the National Rifle Association, what are you doing to find common ground with this group and protect the liberties we all hold dear?"

When I mentioned to one lady that I'm involved in libertarian politics, she said, "You're welcome here!" I don't know if she felt compelled to say that because I was looking a bit uncomfortable, or if she just assumed I would feel that way.

Of course, most of the tension results from the fact that some people defend only the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights, while others defend every amendment but the Second. When the ACLU announced it was giving an award for an "Essay on the Second Amendment," I immediately suspected the essay was hostile to civil liberties on the issue. (I never did learn the content of the essay, and anyway the award was given to teens and doesn't imply endorsement.)

However, another award-winning essay that happened to be printed out argued the paramount concern is to protect Americans from abuses of government power. That's a very libertarian sentiment, and one echoed by all sorts of liberty-oriented groups.

The keynote speaker was Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's D.C. office. She's a real firebrand, and I quite enjoyed her talk.

She gave me hope that civil libertarians of the left and right can find more common ground. She noted many on the "right remembered Waco and Ruby Ridge" and so opposed the overreaching PATRIOT Act. Both sides fear "unchecked government power." Right and left joined to de-fund the TIPS (civilian spy) program, and again to de-fund Total(itarian) Information Awareness. Of the so-called "PATRIOT II," Murphy said, "It's enough to make a Republican call the ACLU!"

Murphy criticized the PATRIOT Act because it weakens judicial review of federal law enforcement, allows the feds to listen in to conversations between defendants and their lawyers, and provides for indefinite detentions. She said the House was prepared to pass a significantly amended version, but then at the last minute the worse Senate bill was substituted and passed.

Passage of this Act galvanized the ACLU, which started the "Keep America Safe and Free" campaign. "We can be secure and keep our liberties," she said. "We're trying to protect ourselves from authoritarian governments," not allow our own government to become authoritarian.

In addition to defending against the domestic spy program and the information-mining project, the ACLU is also trying to fix the original PATRIOT Act. Specifically, the ACLU wants to limit secret searches, prevent searches of library information, restrict wiretapping, and provide for more judicial review.

But now warding off PATRIOT II has taken priority. This measure would grant the Attorney General "unilateral power to strip you of your citizenship" and expand surveillance powers.

Of course, the new federal powers are not restricted to investigating terrorism.

But "the tide is turning," Murphy believes. She said in early 2002, 47% of Americans said they'd trade liberty for security. In early 2003, the figure was down to "only" 33%. In addition, 35 municipalities have voted to outlaw spying on the basis of religious views, and ACLU membership has surged.

Murphy said, "I really do believe we have to take back American values... You have to stand up and have a little optimism... This is not a time to give up."

In the question period, Murphy was asked how the government should deal with emergency situations. "The Constitution is not a suicide pact," the questioner quoted. No one is arguing the government should never take measures to protect the populace, Murphy said. But she wants to "keep the rules intact" and "have some safeguards built in in case there's an abuse of power... Our job is to push for balance."

Murphy's answer does point to the need to critique the various proposals on consequentialist grounds. The new federal powers aren't useful in preventing terrorism, they hurt innocent Americans, and they are very easily abused. However, Murphy could have made the even stronger case that many of the federal powers are counterproductive in that they waste enforcement resources. (David Kopel made this point in a talk last year.)

Murphy made many of the same arguments I've heard from the Libertarian Party and civil arms advocates. It's time to put petty differences aside. The powers of the national government are expanding at a frightening pace. Either we make new friends and forge new coalitions -- or all of us will lose our liberties.

The Colorado Freedom