by Kim Zetter
June 7, 2004
Forget drug-free and nuclear-free zones. A growing grassroots movement seeks to make the United States a Patriot Act-free zone, one city at a time.
Or, at the very least, the people behind the movement hope to make their cities constitutional safe zones.
In the past two years, more than 300 cities and four states have passed resolutions calling on Congress to repeal or change parts of the USA Patriot Act that, activists say, violate constitutional rights such as free speech and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.
Barring that, the resolutions declare that their communities will uphold the constitutional rights of their residents should federal law enforcement agents come knocking on the door of local authorities for assistance in tracking residents. This means local authorities will insist on complying with federal orders only in ways that do not violate constitutional rights. The resolutions are not binding, however, and do not affect the federal government's actions.
The national movement was launched in 2001 by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee http://www.bordc.org/
, an organization led by activist Nancy Talanian. Talanian first lobbied her community -- Northhampton, Massachusetts, a town of 30,000 people -- to stand against the act in November 2001, when few people had heard about the legislation.
Talanian and fellow activists urged newspaper editors to write about the legislation and hosted a public forum attended by 400 people, including Northampton's mayor and chief of police. Word spread quickly to other communities, four of which passed their own resolutions before Northampton passed its declaration the following May.
Two years later, 322 municipalities
and four states -- Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont -- have Patriot Act resolutions.
Congress passed the USA Patriot Act
: swiftly in October 2001, 45 days after the Sept. 11 attacks, easing restrictions on the government's ability to dig up personal information about citizens and non-citizens, and obtain wiretaps and search warrants. Only one senator, Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), and 61 House of Representative members voted against the legislation.
Under the act, federal investigators can obtain individuals' library, financial, health and education records from cities while barring municipal workers from letting anyone know authorities have seized the documents. Officials can also monitor the activities of people who have not been identified as suspects and search a home or office without prior notice.
The municipal resolutions, crafted individually by each community, vary in language. They affirm, for the most part, that city employees aiding federal authorities in national security investigations will not violate the rights of people under investigation, such as monitoring political and religious gatherings where people are engaging in activities protected by the First Amendment.
Hawaii was the first to pass a statewide resolution, citing the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as a motivating factor.
Talanian said fewer than five municipalities rejected resolutions brought before them. These included Boston and Petaluma, California, a small town north of San Francisco.
Fred Hemmings, a Republican state senator in Hawaii who voted against a resolution passed in his state, called the resolution a political play by leftists bent on criticizing the government.
"There are constitutional zealots that somehow believe, especially in times of war, that some of our adversaries should be protected by rights given to us by the Constitution," he said. "But the people on the left are forgetting that we're fighting a war against a nationless enemy. It has to be fought on completely new terms."
He said although he has not read the Patriot Act in detail, he believes "it does provide for adequate judicial oversight of any intrusion into a person's personal life."
But Councilwoman Kathy Lantry from St. Paul, Minnesota, where a resolution passed 6-to-1, took issue with the interpretation that only liberals are behind the movement.
"There are many conservative councilors around the country who have stated emphatically that there are many portions of the Patriot Act that are in direct violation to the way that many of us thought we do things in America," she said. "It's an easy out to say it's just a liberal issue."
Talanian said the community movements, which act independently of her national group and draft their own resolutions, consist of coalitions of disparate groups, from conservative libertarians to liberal civil rights activists.
"It's been very nonpartisan," she said. "There have been mixtures of political parties, as well as peace and veterans groups and student and faculty groups, working together."
Although the resolutions don't carry official weight, the communities say they hope to send a message to Congress to change or repeal parts of the act.
"Resolutions are powerful in that a city council can tell employees in their jurisdiction how they will behave," said Talanian. "They can say we don't want law enforcement to engage in certain activities even if authorized by certain legislation."
Although the resolutions don't prevent federal agents from monitoring or arresting citizens on their own, Talanian said federal authorities would be less likely to pursue surveillance without probable cause, since they don't have the resources to pursue every person who interests them without the cooperation of local law enforcement.
"It might create some checks and balance by reason of logistics or budget priorities for the FBI," she said.
Councilwoman Lantry said no one should underestimate the power local communities can have over how the federal government does its work.
"Maybe one tiny little city council in St. Paul, Minnesota, isn't going to change the way this country does business, but as others join in that cause, it will give pause to those passing policy that perhaps they didn't think about, and need to think about, the negative impact (of the legislation)," she said. "That idea -- that because we can't have a direct impact we shouldn't say anything -- is not the way our country works."
Talanian said the community groups don't oppose all of the Patriot Act's provisions. "We're not saying the entire Patriot Act should be repealed but that certain sections need to be debated to make sure people's rights are being protected."
She pointed to the recent case involving Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield, who was arrested by the FBI after it mistakenly matched Mayfield's fingerprint to one found on a bag related to the train bombing in Madrid.
"Brandon Mayfield illustrates what can happen if there are laws that are so elastic that they allow people to be picked up and detained and have their houses searched and their careers harmed using ways that are not effective for catching terrorists," Talanian said.
Some provisions of the Patriot Act will expire in December 2005. But the Bush administration and congressional allies have been pushing aggressively to get Congress to null the expiration clause. In January, President Bush called on Congress to renew the Patriot Act in his State of the Union address. He has been urging the same in stump speeches on his campaign trail.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has said repealing or changing the Patriot Act would hamper the government's ability to catch terrorists and protect the public.
But the government may be getting the message that citizens are unhappy with the legislation. In March, Chuck Rosenberg, chief of staff to James Comey, the second-highest official in the Justice Department, told a reporter in St. Louis, Missouri, "We're losing this fight."
Talanian said it's important for people to understand that they, not just Congress, can and should participate in debates about national security and legislation that will likely be around a long time.
"Hopefully, the more communities pass resolutions, (the more it) will help change the laws and make people more aware of what their rights are and the importance of protecting them in the future, so that a Patriot Act in a few years couldn't be passed quietly without being read," she said.
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