On Capitol Hill, Free Expression Groups Question the USA Patriot Act

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On April 25, at noon, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and other free expression organizations gathered on Capitol Hill in the Senate Hart Office Building to voice their concern over some of the anti-terrorist measures adopted by the federal government following 9/11. The group -- which included Senator Russell D. Feingold (D-WI), Representative Patsy Mink (D-HI), and Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press -- warned that these measures, most notably the USA Patriot Act, pose a serious threat to free speech.

Chris Finan, president of ABFFE

"We call on our political leaders to resist proposals that unduly and unwisely restrict the very freedoms that we as a nation now collectively seek to preserve," said Chris Finan, president of ABFFE, who chaired the briefing, in his opening remarks. "The hasty measures that were taken in the immediate wake of the attacks of 9/11 should now be reconsidered, and we should reaffirm the right to free expression."

At the briefing, ABFFE and other members of the Free Expression Network (FEN) -- an alliance of organizations dedicated to protecting the First Amendment, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center -- issued a statement marking the six-month anniversary of the passage of the USA Patriot Act. The anti-terrorism bill was signed into law on October 26.

The statement attacked the law, noting that it "dramatically expanded" the power of the federal government at "the expense of individual rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution." Representative Mink opposed the bill, and Senator Feingold was the only member of the Senate to vote against the USA Patriot Act.

The FEN statement highlighted that the USA Patriot Act gives the government greater power to investigate the opinions of individuals suspected of being a terrorist threat. It states that the Act will make Americans fearful about communicating freely over the Internet, buying books, or using libraries to access information. It adds that booksellers, in particular, should be especially concerned by a provision that allows the FBI to secretly request a court order for a list of books purchased by a customer. Furthermore, a "gag order" prevents the seller from even reporting that they have received such a demand.

"After the attacks on our country on September 11, the Congress came under enormous pressure to pass new legislation to fight terrorism within our borders," Senator Feingold said in a statement. "The resulting bill, with an Orwellian title, the USA Patriot Act, was passed in the Senate only a month later… I was the only senator to vote against that bill. I did so with great reluctance, because I very much wanted to support legislation that would give law enforcement the tools it needs to fight terrorism. But I could not support a bill that I thought infringed crucial constitutional freedoms." Feingold continued, "The need for vigilance against the excesses of unbridled governmental power is greater than ever as the fight against terrorism continues."

Senator Feingold’s remarks were followed by a short speech from Representative Mink, who expressed her support of the free expression groups regarding anti-terrorism law. Afterwards, Dalglish discussed threats to press freedom, especially considering that three newspaper editors have lost their jobs for criticizing American policy. Since the USA Patriot Act allows greater government secrecy, she said, it increased the possibility of a journalist coming under surveillance if their source’s communications were already being monitored, as reported in Communications Daily.

The following is an excerpt from the FEN statement:

"Historically, in times of crisis in the United States, an understandable desire to protect the nation has led to efforts to curtail civil liberties, particularly the freedom of speech. In hindsight, these efforts have invariably proved to be both unwise and unnecessary…. The USA Patriot Act … dramatically expanded the investigative powers of the federal government at the expense of Constitutional freedoms. Today … is an appropriate moment to pause and consider whether the erosion of legal principles and individual rights is justifiable.
"Under the Patriot Act and other recent government actions, there have been many instances where the flow of information to the public about government policies and activities has been restricted, debate on important matters suppressed, dissent chilled, and individuals threatened with legal sanction solely for their views or associations.

"While the undersigned members of [FEN] support legitimate law enforcement activities designed to bring to justice the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks and to prevent future threats to our security, we oppose doing so in ways that fundamentally threaten democracy, by allowing government broad power to monitor and investigate the personal opinions of its residents, and by restricting the free flow of information beyond the need to protect national security. We also condemn all efforts to demonize or punish dissent."

ABFFE, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the National Coalition Against Censorship, PEN American Center, and People for the American Way, among others, signed the FEN statement. The full text of the statement is available on the FEN Web site, www.freeexpression.org. --David Grogan