July 21, 2003
Opposition to Patriot Act grows resolute
Towns, cities, states record concerns
By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – Some folks in North Pole, Alaska, don't think much of the USA Patriot Act. Ditto for Baltimore, Denver, Detroit and Tehama County.
They are among a growing number of jurisdictions nationwide that have passed resolutions criticizing the federal law, in whole or part, as a threat to civil liberties. The law was approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to give the federal government broader surveillance and law enforcement powers.
While the local government resolutions are nonbinding, some of them advise police departments not to participate in certain federal law enforcement activities and direct public libraries to post warnings to patrons about possible surveillance of their reading habits.
What started as a protest movement concentrated in liberal college towns has spread to more than 130 cities and counties – some of them traditionally quite conservative – in 26 states, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which has encouraged and helped organize the protests. Three states – Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont – have also passed resolutions.
A group in San Diego is trying to build support for a city resolution that would declare that free speech, access to legal counsel and an array of other rights "are now threatened by the USA Patriot Act."
The Los Angeles Board of Library Commissioners recently asked the Los Angeles City Council to take a stand against portions of the law.
In California, more than 30 cities and counties, from San Francisco to Santa Monica, have passed such resolutions.
"This is part of what amounts to rebellion at the local level against the Patriot Act," said Damon Moglen, national field coordinator for the ACLU. "This needs to be seen as a growing grass-roots effort."
The Justice Department has played down the significance of the resolutions, saying they represent a small minority of Americans and are based on a misunderstanding of the law.
"I think it's a lot of political posturing," said Mark Corallo, a department spokesman. "And I also think it's misleading. . . . The overwhelming majority of Americans understand that the Patriot Act protects them from terrorism and protects civil liberties."
Many, however, question whether increased security is coming at too high a price.
"The law is so broad that somebody with less than honorable procedures could stretch it," said Alaska state Rep. John Coghill, a Republican who co-sponsored that state's toughly worded resolution. "We were saying, 'Caution, folks. We don't want protection against terrorists at the expense of our personal liberties.' "
Approved by Congress with little opposition six weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Patriot Act gave law enforcement agencies several powers that lawmakers had long been reluctant to allow. Some of the most controversial provisions allow the indefinite detention of noncitizens who are deemed threats to national security, secret searches before a suspect is served with a warrant and broader wiretap and Internet surveillance authority.
One section of the law that has prompted particular concern allows the FBI to seek confidential court orders "requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items)" for terrorism and intelligence probes. Libraries and bookstores say the provision allows snooping into their patrons' reading and Internet habits.
Many of the anti-Patriot Act resolutions direct libraries to post prominent warnings about the law. Some libraries, including several in California, have started routinely shredding paper records and erasing Internet logs.
Tom Phillips, a city councilman in Greensboro, N.C., who sponsored that community's resolution on the Patriot Act, called the search and surveillance powers "a little extreme."
"They really ought to take a hard look at it and see if some of these things need to be modified," said Phillips, a Republican.
Corallo said opponents of the law are overstating its reach and ignoring the fact that many of the surveillance powers are subject to judicial review and First Amendment limitations.
"The idea that the FBI can unilaterally get people's library records and tap people's phones is a flat-out lie," he said.
The wording of the resolutions varies widely. Some, like Tehama County's, don't mention the Patriot Act directly, but extol the virtues of the Constitution and advise public officials to be on guard against actions that erode civil liberties.
Others, including those in Baltimore, Denver and Detroit, advise their police departments not to enforce federal immigration laws or monitor the activities of groups and individuals unless there is reasonable cause to suspect they are involved in criminal behavior.
The proposed San Diego resolution wouldn't go that far. But it would require the police department and libraries to make quarterly reports to the City Council about requests for information under the Patriot Act. It would also direct the city manager to seek data from federal authorities about anti-terrorism efforts in the city, including the extent of surveillance and the disposition of anyone arrested.
"The resolution doesn't say repeal the Patriot Act. Mainly it says we want accountability," said Kate Yavenditti, a lawyer and an organizer of the local effort. "We haven't approached the City Council yet. We're in the beginning stages. What we're trying to do is build a grass-roots movement so that we can bring the voice of the community to the City Council."
With federal officials stressing the importance of local cooperation in the war on terrorism, the resolutions have alarmed some law enforcement officials.
After the Denver City Council passed its resolution, the police union in that city issued a statement saying, "To attempt to hamstring the police from attempting to find out who is involved in the various causes and possibly not respond appropriately to these activities is wrong and maybe irresponsible."
The Justice Department's Corallo said the resolutions "have no practical effect because this is federal law."
Even if the statements are largely symbolic, local officials involved in the effort say it is important to let federal officials know that there are strong misgivings about the Patriot Act, especially after a Justice Department draft of a second, tougher version of the law surfaced early this year.
"I have to admit, I went back and forth about whether this was a shallow display," said Tehama County Supervisor Barbara McIver, a Democrat. "I realized it was not. I think the lack of discussion and participation by citizens at this time is alarming. It (the resolution) was absolutely useful. It got people talking."