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Op-Ed: Fight for Bill of Rights Comes to New York City (New York Newsday)

By Donna Lieberman and Udi Ofer — The Bush administration likes to describe anyone who criticizes its anti-terrorism policies as being weak on national security. We call for upholding the Bill of Rights, and they call us soft on terrorism. Dissent, we are told, is unpatriotic.

Well, millions of Americans are responding with a different message: Dissent is patriotic. Three states and more than 215 communities, representing more than 27 million people, have passed resolutions against the rollbacks on civil liberties in the USA Patriot Act and related federal actions. New York City now has the opportunity to join the national movement by passing Resolution 909, which calls on government officials to uphold civil liberties when undertaking antiterrorism initiatives.

The recent release of an FBI memorandum urging local police authorities to surveil anti-war demonstrators gives new support for the Bill of Rights defense movement. The memo’s release is also one more reason why the New York City Council must act before its last stated council meeting on Dec. 15 to approve the bill.

Congress passed the USA Patriot Act in just 45 days following 9/11 with virtually no debate. Along with the act, subsequent presidential directives and FBI regulations have seriously undermined long-standing American freedoms such as the right to privacy, lawful political expression and due process of law. American citizens are being held without charges and without access to attorneys or family members. The government can now obtain sensitive confidential information on U.S. citizens without having to prove criminal suspicion. And government spying on lawful political speech has been resurrected.

In response, City Council Deputy Majority Leader Bill Perkins introduced Resolution 909. Thirty-one out of 51 Council members have since signed on to support the resolution. And a majority of the city’s congressional Representatives recently sent a letter to Council Speaker Gifford Miller urging him to bring it to a vote immediately. Resolution 909 contains more than 20 directives to city government officials. It calls on the New York Police Department to “refrain from engaging in the surveillance of individuals based on their participation in activities protected by the First Amendment…without particularized suspicion of criminal activity.”

Freedom of speech is a bedrock principle of American democracy, yet has been severely curtailed since Sept. 11. Last spring a federal judge in New York City rolled back protections on political speech that had been in place for decades. The USA Patriot Act permits surveillance of individuals based primarily on First Amendment-protected speech. Resolution 909 directs the NYPD to “refrain from engaging in racial, religious or ethnic profiling.” Profiling not only violates the Constitution but does not work. Indeed, on Monday the Department of Homeland Security suspended its program of forcing Arab, Muslim and South Asian immigrants to register with the government. No terrorists were found even though more than 82,000 men had been made to register.

The resolution lists other civil liberties concerns that have arisen. It directs the NYPD to refrain from participating in “sneak and peek” searches in violation of New York State law; establish databases on individuals based upon unsubstantiated information that is insufficient to establish criminal activity; and puts the City Council on record as opposing the secret detention of persons without charges or access to a lawyer.

Resolution 909 holds the government accountable for its antiterrorism initiatives. It calls upon federal officials to make public the number of times New York City library records have been obtained with no suspicion of criminal activity; the number of secret warrants executed under the USA Patriot Act; and the number of investigations of persons engaged in lawful political and religious activities.

Support for the nationwide movement to restore the Bill of Rights bridges the political divide. Gun Owners of America and the American Conservative Union have joined People for the American Way and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in calling for the protection of individual freedoms. At the recent council hearing on Resolution 909, relatives of FDNY and NYPD officers who died on Sept. 11 testified on behalf of the resolution.

Tuesday hundreds of New Yorkers gathered in the cold for a lunchtime rally for Resolution 909. The public is onboard, so is the majority of both the City Council and the city’s congressional delegation. It’s time for the city to go on record. Civil liberties and national security don’t conflict. We can be safe and free.

Donna Lieberman is the Executive Director of the NYCLU; Udi Ofer is the Project Director of the NYCLU’s New York Bill of Rights Defense Campaign.

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