Council hears, debates local relevance of the USA Patriot Act
How much, if any, effect does the federal law to battle domestic terrorism, the USA Patriot Act, have on local agencies? Apparently none presently, but that could change if the feds deem it appropriate due to some sort of local terrorist action.
That murky answer was as good as could be formulated this week following a 35-minute Chico City Council discussion on the topic, which ended with Councilmember Dan Herbert declaring, “I’m hungry,” and that discussions on matters of civil rights are “as old as dirt.”
“We could be discussing civil liberty for the next 10 years,” Herbert said.
Still, about 10 people addressed the council with concerns about the federal law, which, in the words of one protester, recalls the days of McCarthyism.
Terrorist action, as defined by the act, includes anything considered “dangerous to human life,” warned local attorney Leslie Johnson. And by that definition, the March 20 downtown intersection sit-in by anti-war activists could be seen as a terrorist action, Johnson said.
That, in turn, would trigger the formation of a Chico-area Joint Terrorism Task Force, which, according to the Chico Bill of Rights Defense Committee, would lead to the unprecedented surveillance of religious and political organizations, “sneak and peek warrants,” and taps placed on cell phones, email and Internet use.
A Chico State University librarian and a local bookstore manager told the council the Patriot Act could be used to track people’s reading habits, and a local minister said people should be free to protest without fear of being caught up in an FBI file.
At least three councilmembers dismissed the folks who spoke out as having overactive imaginations.
When Jeff Lords, who identified himself as the manager of Readmore Books, said the ramifications of the act could have a detrimental impact on his store, Councilmember Steve Bertagna asked for fiscal documentation.
Lords explained he’d heard comments from customers who’d expressed concerns that the government, under the Patriot Act, may start nosing into people’s choices of reading material. “If people think the Chico police can track them, they will stop buying from my store,” Lords said.
Rubina Khan, who said she was speaking as a woman and a Muslim, said she had heard of innocent people being caught up in the act because of their looks or religious backgrounds. She told of a family in Pennsylvania that was arrested by the FBI when someone reported seeing steam rising from their back yard. The steam was from a pot of boiling rice.
“The FBI came and broke down the front door, grabbed the wife at gunpoint and found a prescription medication they suspected was anthrax,” Khan said. “They held the family for two weeks.
“How are these things happening?” she asked. “It seems like we are losing our freedoms. We can free Iraq and Afghanistan, but here in America we are losing our freedoms.”
At that point, Bertagna asked that the speakers “stay on our topic. Any other discussion is a violation of the Brown Act.”
Keeping the testimony strictly local for something that had yet to happen and not making reference to other cities and regions for examples proved difficult for the speakers.
At one point Councilmember Larry Wahl asked Pastor Ellen Rowan, “What would you have this council do?”
Rowan answered that wanted the council to vote on a resolution that “would send a message to the White House.”
Before the public spoke, new Chico Police Chief Bruce Hagerty told the council the Patriot Act has no impact on his department. If there was a local act of terrorism, he said, local law enforcement would do no more than lend support to federal investigators.
Greg Burton of the Chico Bill of Rights Defense Committee said he had to “respectfully disagree” with the chief and read the council his interpretation of the act, including secret detentions and local surveillance at peace rallies.
“I’m asking council to pass a preemptive resolution to protect our liberties,” Burton said.
Wahl asked Burton if he thought the act was unconstitutional. Burton said he did, that the bill amounted to the “evisceration of the Bill of Rights.”
“Have any of these things happened locally?” Wahl asked.
“I don’t know,” Burton answered.
“If none of these things have happened locally, why bring this here? Why not take it before the Supreme Court?” Wahl asked.
At that point Burton held up a petition against the Patriot Act that he said included 2,000 signatures.
“That means 66,000 people have not signed it” Wahl replied, referring to the total number of people in the Chico city limits.
Toward the end, Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan, who had put the issue on the agenda, said he had no interest in passing a resolution, but that he felt those with concerns about the Patriot Act have a right to air them.
“In my opinion there is no denying the local impact of the USA Patriot Act on local citizens,” Nguyen-Tan said. “But I need to focus on things I have some control over.”
Later, Nguyen-Tan said, he didn’t want to force a resolution and further divide an already politically split council. After 12 years in print and a year in court, the Sacramento Valley Mirror has finally been recognized as a paper of record. That means the paper can now run legal ads, which should translate to a huge increase in ad revenue for the feisty, twice-a-week paper published out of a tiny office in Artois.
Tim Crews, the Mirror’s owner, publisher and editor, said he felt vindicated by the ruling handed down last week by Glenn County Judge Donald C. Byrd. But Crews was still bitter toward Morris Multimedia, which owns the Mirror’s main competitor, Tri-Counties Newspapers, which puts out papers in Corning, Orland, Willows and Colusa. Morris had attempted to block the Mirror’s petition for adjudication by claiming that Crews was padding his subscription list. Those accusations remain unproven.
“At long last,” Crews said. “We’ve been qualified for years, it’s just that we had to fight the people with deep pockets.”
The ability to sell legal ads is a huge coup for the Mirror, as it could potentially double the paper’s ad revenue and could also increase subscriptions by as much as 30 percent. As it is, the paper barely makes enough to stay afloat, and Crews said the legal bills for the adjudication fight cost him around $20,000.
“This means good things for us,” Crews said. “It’s been a 12-year-battle. I’m jumping up and down.”
The battle for adjudication took many a strange turn, as chronicled in a CN&R cover story from July 2002. As the fight spilled from the courtroom onto the front pages of both the Mirror and the Tri-Counties papers, columnists on both sides lobbied readers hard, going so far as to make personal attacks on each other in print.
When then Managing Editor Rayce Newman of Tri-Counties Newspapers got a little too snippy with the Mirror, Crews blasted Newman, revealing his extensive criminal background and calling him a “burglar,” among other things. Newman later left the paper under a cloud.
Crews, who has received awards for his reporting and once spent several days in jail for refusing to reveal a source, recently said that journalism was “a calling” for him and lamented the increasing corporatization of the news business.
“The problem is when you apply the corporate mentality to newspapers … that’s where the sense of ethics goes kaput."