December 15 was Bill of Rights Day. To hear people talk about this proud tradition and how it distinguishes the USA from other countries, you’d think our freedoms here are robust and protected by the government itself.
Really? I often see governments subverting First Amendment rights—even with actions that threaten nothing except the comfort of those in power. It happens at all levels:
- Schools do their best to ban expression—speech, printed materials, clothing & hair styles—that might be even slightly controversial, claiming that it ‘disrupts the educational process’. [There are numerous examples of this right here in the Lehigh Valley.] Not only is this an obvious violation of the First Amendment & the PA School Code, it is not even valid from an educational point of view—controversy would provide many ‘teachable moments’ and make school more meaningful to many students. It’s not education that is disrupted by free speech, it’s the bureaucratic machine. Do they value order more than freedom? …dogma more than truth? …rote more than true learning?
- Cities and ‘homeland security’ types seem to abhor protest or disagreement of any sort—to the extent that they even violate their oaths to uphold the law [including the Constitution] and attack and arrest nonviolent protesters in city after city.
- State governments also compile information on dissenters. [Pennsylvania recently admitted that a private contractor had compiled information on people opposed to natural gas drilling, treating them as if they were potential terrorists.]
- The FBI and ‘Department of Justice’ have been raiding the homes of nonviolent peace activists and others who oppose government policy. The military regularly lies about events and then prosecutes those who tell the truth.
In an earlier post, I mentioned Elaine Scarry’s excellent article in the February/March 2004 Boston Review. She points out that the United States was founded on the premise that government is accountable to the people, not the other way around: ‘The double requirement—that people’s lives be private and government actions be public—is turned inside out [by the USA PATRIOT Act]…’ The same counter-Constitutional thinking that underlies that act are now being incorporated as standard operating procedure throughout the government.
Another essential protection in Bill of Rights is freedom from search and seizure of person or property except when officials have probable cause [Fourth Amendment]. Many of the provisions of the Patriot Act are obvious violations of this amendment, but it’s also a violation if a police officer searches you or your vehicle without cause. As noted above, this right is often violated with protesters, whether it’s at the School Of the Americas [the U.S. terrorist training center] or a conference in Pittsburgh.
The Sixth Amendment provides the right to a speedy and public trial if charged with any offense, and the right to confront all evidence and witnesses to be used by the government, as well as the right to assistance of counsel. These rights are commonly violated in prosecutions of persons alleged to be terrorists or ‘enemy combatants’. And they are continually violated in the cases of poor defendants, even when facing the death penalty [as is proven by the hundreds of people who have been sentenced to the death penalty and later exonerated by re-examining the evidence].
One of the founders, Thomas Jefferson, said ‘When the government fears the people, you have liberty; when the people fear the government, you have tyranny.’ I don’t think he took into account the fact that government ‘leaders’ have become so paranoid about protecting their power they even fear the people’s exercise of basic civil liberties.