ARCATA, CALIFORNIA -- More than 100 cities, and one state, have condemned the USA Patriot Act as giving the government too much snooping power. In Arcata, a liberal fold in Northern California's Redwood Curtain, the City Council has gone a step farther and criminalized it.
Starting this month, a new city ordinance makes it a crime punishable by a $57 fine for a city department head to voluntarily cooperate with unconstitutional investigations or arrests under the aegis of the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism bill passed in the dark days after Sept. 11.
Arcata's law is more than a bit symbolic. The federal Patriot Act trumps local law and the ordinance is moot if a court rules the act is constitutional, a decision that hasn't come up yet.
Still, the notion of civic disobedience is drawing plenty of attention, from warm endorsement to hot denouncement.
"We knew we were doing something a little bit bold," says Dave Meserve, the councilman who sponsored the ordinance. "It certainly did not occur to me that it would catch the imagination of the American public."
The USA Patriot Act -- literally, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act -- gave the government new powers to use wiretaps, electronic and computer surveillance and searches as well as the authority to get to financial and other information.
Opponents say the law violates American civil liberties; supporters say it has helped fight terrorism.
"The Patriot Act has been an invaluable tool in the government's efforts to prevent terrorist attacks," said Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez, who said the act is constitutional and is being used only against people suspected of acting as agents of a foreign power or foreign terrorist organizations.
Critics of the act see the measures against it, which include a state resolution in Hawaii, as a groundswell.
"We've seen 52 resolutions passed in two months," said Nancy Talanian, who's been keeping track at her Northampton, Mass.-based Bill of Rights Defense Committee.
Meanwhile, Vermont Rep. Bernie Sanders, an independent, has introduced a bill that would stop judges on the government's foreign surveillance court from giving federal law enforcement officers warrants to search library and bookstore records for personally identifiable information about a patron.
"This is absolutely making a difference," said Sanjeev Bery, an organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco. The ACLU is campaigning against the Patriot Act and against the government's expected attempt to expand its powers, generally referred to as Patriot II.
But Martinez called the resolutions, "merely symbolic. We haven't had an instance where localities are not complying."
In Arcata, the ordinance is the latest in a long line of actions that set the former mill town apart from the flannel-clad conservatism of California's North Coast. Home to about 16,000 and nearly 300 miles up the coast from San Francisco, Arcata made waves in the early '90s as the first city with a Green Party majority. Greens now hold two of five seats on the council, which recently issued a proclamation against war in Iraq.
The Patriot Act ordinance passed 4-1. Councilman Michael Machi said he voted "no" because he thinks the issue should be fought in the courts, but he too has problems with the Patriot Act. "I was very concerned about certain provisions in it," he said.
At Northtown Books, one of several businesses lining Arcata's charming town square, employees have followed reaction to the ordinance with interest.
"Some of the reports of what's going on here have made it seem like, 'Oh, it's those crazy hippies in Arcata,"' said Jay Herzog. The truth is, there's widespread support, even from some town conservatives, he said.
There aren't a lot of conservatives in Arcata, but one of them is Bob Minkler, who has a small jewelry shop a few steps off the square. Minkler's "got no use for" Arcata's City Council, but considers it healthy to have a debate about the federal law.
"A lot of Americans who were not aware of the Patriot Act now at least know it's there, realize that it's a constitutional issue, realize that there's some questions that they should be asking," he said.
On the Net:
Arcata government: www.arcatacityhall.org
Justice Department guidance on Patriot Act authority: www.usdoj.gov/criminal/ cybercrime/PatriotAct.htm
Bill of Rights Defense Committee: www.bordc.org
Copyright 2003 The Associated Press