Cities across the country have been quietly staging a revolt against the USA
Patriot Act, saying it gives law enforcement too much power and threatens civil
rights. Over the last three months, the Massachusetts cities of Cambridge, Northampton
and Amherst and the township of Leverett all passed resolutions that call the
USA Patriot Act a threat to the civil rights of the residents of their communities.
Congress passed the act in October to give federal investigators sweeping
new powers to probe terrorism in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, and soon
came under criticism from civil libertarians. The public has been supportive of
The Massachusetts cities join Berkeley, Calif., and Ann Arbor, Mich., in taking
a strong stance challenging the way the Bush administration wants to pursue its
war on terror within the borders of the United States.
In Cambridge, where the measure passed the city council by a 5-4 margin on
June 17, the resolution says in part, "We believe these civil liberties [freedom
of speech, assembly and privacy; equality before the law; due process; and freedom
from unreasonable searches and seizures] are now threatened by the USA Patriot
"For me, it was that historically there have been attacks on civil liberties
in times of war," Councilman Brian Murphy said when asked why he co-authored the
resolution. "I think if you look at USA Patriot, this is another example of that."
The resolutions are largely symbolic, because the local governments have no
authority to compel federal law enforcement to comply.
"One of the recognitions is that there is a supremacy act and that there are
limits to what a city can do," Murphy said. "If the FBI chooses to take actions
in Cambridge, they're able to do that under the law as it is constituted.
"We feel it is important that communities send a message that there is opposition
to this act," he added.
House Committee Has Questions
Even before USA Patriot was passed, the police in Portland, Ore., broke ranks
with the Justice Department's war on terror, saying that it would not cooperate
with the FBI on investigations of Middle Eastern students in the city, because
state law barred police from questioning immigrants who are not suspected of a
The city council of Boulder, Colo., is considering a resolution similar to
the ones passed in the six other cities, and Denver has also passed a resolution
that, while not going as far as the others, still expresses concerns about whether
USA Patriot might be implemented in such a way that it could threaten civil liberties.
At the same time, the House Judicial Committee has sent a request to U.S.
Attorney General John Ashcroft asking him and FBI Director Robert Mueller to respond
to 12 pages of questions 50 in all about how the act is being
implemented and how effective it has been.
"We plan to schedule a public hearing in the near future to allow further
public discussion of these and other issues relating to the Department of Justice's
activity in investigating terrorists or potential terrorist attacks," the letter
The letter requested a response no later than July 9.
Threat or Protection?
Though the USA Patriot Act was passed by overwhelming margins in both the
Senate 98-1 and the House of Representatives 356-66
the 342-page law has been criticized by civil libertarians and constitutional
rights groups as overstepping the bounds of proper law enforcement procedure.
"This law is based on the faulty assumption that safety must come at the expense
of civil liberties," Laura W. Murphy, the director of the American Civil Liberties
Union's Washington National Office, said in that group's analysis of the law.
"The USA Patriot Act gives law enforcement agencies nationwide extraordinary new
powers unchecked by meaningful judicial review."
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said that he was unaware
of the resolutions being passed by cities around the country, but he said their
concerns and criticisms of the law were unfounded.
"USA Patriot was passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in both the
House and the Senate," Corallo said. "The Patriot Act protects civil liberties
and is fully within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution."
The U.S. attorney's office in Boston was also unaware that four cities in
the state had approved measures that sought information from federal law enforcement
about anti-terror actions being taken in their communities and directed local
police not to cooperate with federal agencies if they were asked to do things
that violated someone's civil rights.
After reviewing the Cambridge resolution, Jerry Leone, the assistant U.S.
attorney in Massachusetts and the anti-terrorism coordinator in the state, said
the city leaders do not understand the Patriot Act.
"I think some people have formed misconceptions of what the intentions of
USA Patriot are," Leone said. "If one is a civil libertarian, I think the first
reaction is, 'Hey, that's one more tool for the government to infringe on our
rights,' but if you look at the implementation of the law, that's not the case."
Making Muslims Feel Safe
In Ann Arbor, though, City Councilwoman Heidi Herrell said that there have
been problems with the way the law has been implemented, and that was why the
city felt compelled to act.
"We're very concerned about civil rights and about potential discrimination
against members of our community," she said. "We spent a lot of time since Sept.
11 making sure that the Muslim members of our community felt safe."
She pointed to the ruling by a federal judge in Detroit in April that it was
unconstitutional for the Justice Department to require immigration court judges
to bar the public and the media from hearings for detainees who have been determined
to be of special interest to federal authorities.
The Detroit ruling came in response to three separate lawsuits asking that
hearings for Rabih Haddad, who was arrested in Ann Arbor in December on charges
that he had overstayed his tourist visa, be opened.
"The judge ruled that the hearings had to be open, so it seems like the court
agreed with us in that case," she said. "We're not saying that people shouldn't
be questioned. We're just concerned about civil rights."
The Justice Department is appealing the decision, and the Supreme Court has
stayed a similar ruling in a New Jersey case to decide the issue.
Constitutions Not a Suicide Pact
The council in Denver, the largest of the seven cities, adopted the least-strongly
worded resolution, and language about not cooperating with federal authorities
was removed before it was finally passed, 7-4.
The resolution says that it "reaffirms Denver's commitment to unbiased policing,"
and states that the police should continue to adhere to their policy that "no
information about political, religious or social views, associations or activities
should be collected unless the information relates to criminal activity and the
subject is suspected of criminal activity."
City government officials described it as an affirmation of Denver's commitment
to civil rights.
"We were concerned about the abridgement of free speech because of national
security concerns," Councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie said. "It seemed to us that
it was more unpopular than ever to criticize the government or protest for peace,
and that was really scary. As awful as we feel about Sept. 11 and as concerned
as we were about national safety, we felt that giving up the right to dissent
was too high a price to pay.
"It resonated to us of the McCarthy era and other times," she added, referring
to the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of the 1950s.
For some, though, even the milder version of the resolution went too far.
Councilman Ed Thomas said that by approving it, the council was saying that "Denver
would be a haven for terrorists."
"My opinion was that we have lost our collective minds if we are going to
come up with these kinds of motions," he said. "The last time I checked, I believe
we are at war."
He said there were reasons why stricter law enforcement measures have traditionally
been taken in times of national emergency or war.
"The Constitution is not a suicide pact," he said. "I think history will prove
this to be folly. I felt that at that time [when the resolution was passed] and
I still feel that way. We've lost our collective minds if we're doing this kind
In Ann Arbor, Herrell said the mistake would be to respond to terror by compromising
the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
"At times like these, I think our constitutional rights are even more important,"
she said. "There have been times when we relaxed these things the McCarthy
era, the '60s civil rights struggle, the detention of the Japanese-Americans in
World War II. We look back at those times with shame.
I think this will
be another time we look back on with shame. That's what I fear."
Copyright © 2002 ABC News Internet Ventures