Following is the statement issued June 15, 2004, by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee of the Lehigh Valley:
There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.
— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Over the past several months, Bethlehem residents have repeatedly urged City Council to pass a resolution to protect people’s privacy, property, and fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Members of the local Bill of Rights Defense Committee have provided extensive information about threats to civil liberties and have met with each member of Council to answer questions and to review a proposed resolution.
In May, Council president Schweder announced that the resolution would be placed on the agenda by June 15, but the resolution has been dropped from the agenda because, according to Mr. Schweder, “a majority of council members decided that this does not pertain to city business.” We think Council’s choice to deliberately ignore these issues demonstrates an astonishing disregard for the safety and well being of the thousands of people who live, work, and attend school in Bethlehem.
The deceptively-named USA PATRIOT Act and related measures expand government power, reduce judicial oversight, and create a climate where rights can be violated almost at will. These laws and regulations authorize federal agents to engage in a variety of invasive activities that are prohibited by the Constitution: Agents can search people’s homes and offices without notice and obtain health, financial, educational, library, and Internet records without probable cause or even reasonable suspicion that the person is involved in any criminal activity. Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows agents to obtain not only those records, but “any tangible thing” — and makes it a crime to tell anyone when such actions take place.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has authorized FBI agents and local police departments to infiltrate and conduct surveillance of religious services, environmental groups, and political gatherings, even where there is no suspicion of criminal activity. These new guidelines undo long-standing protections enacted in the aftermath of the FBI’s notorious “COINTELPRO” operations.
Even more frightening are the “disappearances”. People have been snatched off the streets and detained for months — many in solitary confinement — without warrants based on probable cause and without notice to anyone. Families have been left to wonder whether the father or mother has been murdered or kidnapped, and people who spent years building a successful life and providing for their families have seen their lives ruined and families destroyed. The majority of these detainees were never charged with any crime.
We have seen similar criminal behavior in some of the worst dictatorships and police states, and it should not be allowed to happen here. Unfortunately, many sources indicate that we have reason to be concerned. Even the Justice Department’s own Inspector General has reported numerous violations of civil rights, and news reports suggest that there are many more — but an exact count is impossible because the Justice Department refuses to disclose even general information about their actions, even to Congress.
Judge Andrew Napolitano, writing in the New Jersey Law Review one month after 9/11 reminds us, “In a democracy, personal liberties are rarely diminished overnight. Rather, they are lost gradually, by acts of well-meaning people, with good intentions, amid public approval. But the subtle loss of freedom is never recognized until the crisis is over and we look back in horror. And then it is too late.” And Thomas Paine’s words are no less true today, “It is the duty of the patriot to protect his country from its government.”
The notion that protecting civil rights and civil liberties does not pertain to city business ignores the facts:
Protecting people’s safety and security is one of the most important responsibilities of local government, and this is just what the proposed resolution asks them to do.
- Federal authorities frequently call upon local police to assist them, so the resolution directs city employees, including law enforcement, to protect people’s constitutionally guaranteed civil rights and civil liberties and to refrain from participating in any activities that violates these rights; it also requests libraries, schools, and other institutions to advise that records can be taken by federal agents without notice.
- When federal agents burden city employees, including police officers, they are diverted from the duties they are supposed to be performing, at the city’s expense.
- When Council members take office, they take an oath to obey and defend the constitutions of both the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. That is just what the resolution does.
Clearly, the proposed resolution pertains very directly to “city business” .
At a recent council meeting, Bethlehem Police Commissioner Francis Donchez stated that his research into the USA PATRIOT Act showed that there is a real possibility of abuse. Commisioner Donchez said he would prefer to see this in the form of an ordinance, he has reviewed the proposed resolution and said that such resolution would not interfere with legitimate law enforcement activity and would make clear that Bethlehem police will not violate people’s rights.
Some 330 cities and towns in 40 states have already decided that safeguarding residents is one of their responsibilities and have passed resolutions and ordinances similar to that proposed for Bethlehem — and four states have passed statewide resolutions. All told, these resolutions provide protection to over 51 million people, including residents of six cities in Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Lansdowne, Reading, Wilkinsburg, and York, plus nearby Berks County.
We think the people of Bethlehem — and other Valley towns — deserve no less!
Followup statement issued after Council revealed that it will not consider such a resolution at this time.
To learn more about the threats posed by the Patriot Act and related measures, contact
- The national Bill of Rights Defense Committee 413 582-0110;
- The American Civil Liberties Union 202 675-2306.
- The Bill of Rights Defense Committee of the Lehigh Valley (Contact by EMAIL )
June 14, 2004 – Statement regarding Bethlehem City Council pulling resolution off the agenda
June 15, 2004 – Key Elements of the proposed resolution
June 16, 2004 – Statement on Council’s plan to protect people by doing nothing
Bill of Rights Defense Committee of the Lehigh Valley
313 W. Fourth Street • Bethlehem, PA 18015