Addressing local concerns over intrusive new federal laws

Careful what you say—someone might be listening.

Such was the attitude at the Chico City Council chambers on Thursday, March 13, when it was packed with concerned citizens hoping to learn more about what speakers characterized as one of the greatest threats to civil liberties since the era of McCarthyism—the USA Patriot Act.

The act is a package of federal laws that was sold to legislators as a way to protect Americans from foreign terrorists operating in the United States. It passed both houses of Congress overwhelmingly in October 2001, a scant six weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The problem with the act, said Chico law professor Paul Persons, is that it grants the government enormous new powers to spy on U.S. citizens.

“This is a major violation of your right to privacy,” Persons warned, relaying several components of the act that he said have the potential to seriously erode citizens’ most fundamental rights. Those components include: the ability of federal agencies to monitor citizens’ e-mail, conduct secret and obtrusive searches without traditional judicial oversight, secretly monitor the reading habits of citizens at libraries and bookstores and conduct certain types of wiretapping operations that were abolished after the Watergate scandal of the mid-1970s.

“They can come in without a warrant, search your house, take something from your house … and not tell you until after the investigation,” he said.

Persons went on to describe other recently passed legislation, such as the CAPS II airline passenger screening plan and the Homeland Security Act, that he said also “reduces privacy and increases government secrecy and power.”

When Persons started to explain the details of a proposed new law called the Domestic Security Enhancement Act (DSEA), also know as “Patriot Act II,” one incredulous audience member, an elderly woman, was unable to contain herself. “That’s outrageous!” she exclaimed, bringing nervous laughter and applause. “So many abuses!”

The DSEA, Persons said, would make the Patriot Act (parts of which have a five-year sunset clause) permanent law. It would also allow the government to wield even more surveillance powers, presumptively strip citizenship from American citizens who are thought to support anti-government groups, restrict access to many unclassified government records and, in some cases, take away the right to sue the government for invading one’s privacy.

The point of the forum, which was organized by the Chico Bill of Rights Defense Committee, was to stir up grassroots opposition to the new laws. That committee has been working to draft a resolution for the Chico City Council to pass against the Patriot Act. An early version of that resolution has been circulated among the council members but has yet to be put on the agenda. The committee has also gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition opposing the Patriot Act.

Sanjeev Bery, who works with the Northern California chapter of the ACLU, told the audience that 65 counties and cities across the country have passed similar resolutions. Although local resolutions are largely symbolic when it comes to opposing federal law, they nevertheless send a message to Congress, Bery said.

“Our behavior and our actions really make a difference and really are important,” Bery said. “This is the first step; this is how we turn the tide.”

Bery also stressed the importance of bringing people together from all sides of the political spectrum.

“This isn’t a left vs. right thing,” he said. “The belief in the basic freedoms that are supposed to make our country special are values liberals have, conservatives have and moderates have. If we’re going to push back against these things, we’re going to have to build these broad-based coalitions.”

For more information on local efforts to oppose the Patriot Act, call 898-1357.