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A San Francisco Police Department vehicle is visible patrolling during a shelter in place order amid an outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus in San Francisco, March 23, 2020. (Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

'Take This Seriously': Digital Rights Group Urges Americans to Beat Back Attempts to Exploit Coronavirus Crisis to Erode Civil Liberties

"We shouldn't have to choose between our health and our basic human rights."

Julia Conley

As President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders called on Americans to flout the advice of public health experts and consider returning to work amid the coronavirus pandemic, digital rights group Fight for the Future launched a campaign on Tuesday urging supporters to help "flatten the curve" and slow the spread of the respiratory virus while warning that government agencies are liable to use widespread anxiety about the pandemic to undermine civil liberties and human rights.

The group's "Take This Seriously" campaign calls on the public to do just that—listen to public health officials who warn that slowing the spread of the coronavirus by staying at home as much as people are able to and avoiding large gatherings is essential to keeping the pandemic from overwhelming U.S. health systems. 

Adherence to public health guidance, the group noted, should not replace vigilance in the fight for civil liberties and human rights, which may come under attack by the police and government agencies as more Americans commit to helping "flatten the curve."

"Our core message is that this virus is extremely serious and that we need to take it seriously," Fight for the Future Deputy Director Evan Greer said in a statement. "We encourage the public, governments, and corporations to heed the recommendations of public health officials... We also must remain vigilant and beat back attempts to exploit this crisis to undermine fundamental rights and freedoms."

At Fight for the Future's campaign website, supporters are invited to sign a pledge reading, "I will do my part to slow down COVID-19 and fight for everyone's basic rights."

As Common Dreams reported Tuesday, state governments in Ohio and Texas are already using the pandemic to curb the right to safe, legal abortion, claiming abortion care is "non-essential."

U.S. officials are examining other ways to suspend basic rights, Fight for the Future said. Proposals that have already been implemented or are under consideration include:

  • Increasing invasive surveillance by working with tech companies to track Americans' location data through smartphones and social media networks, as Israel, Australia, and Singapore have already. 
  • Censoring speech about the coronavirus pandemic, as the White House did when it barred public health officials from speaking about the disease without clearance as it began spreading across the United States.
  • Undermining due process and the rule of law, as Trump's Department of Justice has suggested it will when it requested over the weekend "that Congress grant the Executive Branch even more sweeping powers, such as the ability to detain people indefinitely without a trial, and to suspend court proceedings in the event of 'any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation.'"
  • Unnecessarily restricting movement with random stops, checkpoints, and criminalization of people who leave their homes during shelter-in-place orders. 

"It's one thing to encourage people to stay home and close down businesses in order to reduce the reasons for people to gather, but people should still be free to go outside, drive places, and move freely without having to justify their movements to the government," Fight for the Future said. "People should not be stopped by police or military officers asking people where they are going, or be forced to get approval just to leave their house."

Accepting an erosion of civil liberties in a time of crisis will result in more restricted movement, surveillance, and other invasions of privacy after the coronavirus pandemic is under control, the group warned.

"We shouldn't have to choose between our health and our basic human rights," said Fight for the Future. "If we allow our government officials and corporate leaders to violate our civil liberties now, it will only empower them to continue violating our human rights under the guise of 'security' once this pandemic has passed."

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