Two weeks before President Bush signed Congressional legislation that made permanent all but two sections of the USA PATRIOT Act, State College, Pa., became the 397th American community to reaffirm the belief that the Constitution and Bill of Rights take precedence over any federal law. Not one of those resolutions should have been necessary. Nor should the legislatures of eight states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, and Vermont, have had to pass legislation affirming the rights of all Americans. But they had to, and they did.
Encompassed by a nation in fear and a White House willing to exert extraordinary pressure to enact a political agenda, Congress overwhelmingly passed the PATRIOT Act six weeks after 9-11. Most members didn’t read any of the 342-page Bill, having been given less than 48 hours to do so by the Republican leadership.
President Bush had called the Act necessary to defeat the terrorists: Attorney General John Ashcroft had said that anyone not supporting the Bill would be aiding the terrorists. There was only one problem in the legislation - it violated six constitutional amendments.
The Act gave wide latitude to the government to search and seize property and to probe sensitive documents, such as medical records, without a court warrant, and to restrict defendants from using the courts to protest the intrusion upon their rights of privacy or even to be allowed to be brought before a court to defend themselves. To mitigate that somewhat inconsequential unconstitutional problem, Congressional leaders inserted a “sunset” clause, calling for 16 of the more controversial 150 sections of the Act to terminate by December 31, 2005.
About two years before the sunset was due - with the US caught up in the Iraq quagmire and Osama bin Laden still running al-Qaida - the Bush-Cheney Administration began a massive political campaign not only to keep those sections, but also to further restrict human rights.
They claimed that because the nation was at war, the Act was essential. The President falsely claimed the entire PATRIOT Act, not just 16 sections, would cease at the end of the year - and so the terrorists would win. And while most of the nation’s mass media failed to point out the President was wrong,the American people had begun to realise that the government’s use of the PATRIOT Act didn’t result in capturing terrorists as much as it violated the Constitutional rights of the innocent.
By now, conservatives and liberals had begun forming alliances to oppose the PATRIOT Act. Conservatives who opposed provisions of the Act include: Newt Gingrich, former House speaker; Bob Barr, former congressman who led impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton; and Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. Among major national organisations opposing the Act are: the American Civil Liberties Union; the Bill of Rights Defense Committee; the American Library Association; the American Booksellers Association; the National League of Cities; and the largely-conservative American Bar Association; the US Chamber of Commerce; and the National Association of Manufacturers.
About one month after President Bush used his 2005 State of the Union Address to again push for full renewal of the PATRIOT Act, Nancy Kranich began a campaign to get her new hometown to formally oppose it. Kranich’s term as president of the American Library Association ended three months before 9-11, but as a board member and then as chair of the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, she pushed the ALA to become one of the first national associations to raise concerns about the destruction of individual rights under the Act.
By the time she began working with the national Bill of Rights Defense Committee to pass a resolution in State College, more than 300 other communities had passed resolutions opposing what the jingoistic President and his Rasputin Vice-President were doing in the name of fighting terrorism.
The official response by John Ashcroft’s Department of Justice to these community resolutions was that the opposition were “either in cities in Vermont, [were] very small population[s], or [were] in college towns in California. It’s in a lot of the usual enclaves where you might see nuclear free zones, or they probably passed resolutions against the war in Iraq,” he said Those “very small population” cities included: Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, Detroit, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
A previous attempt to pass a resolution in State College had failed. Opposition from the mayor and borough council, as Kranich learned, was because most of them believed this wasn’t a local issue. They didn’t want a resolution telling the police how to do their work and, as the mayor said, they didn’t want “marginal groups who would come to council to ask for [their own] resolution”.
“That’s when I knew I had to frame the campaign to deal with those issues, while educating the people about the PATRIOT Act itself,” says Kranich. Through national forums, the League of Women Voters found that Americans were more likely to recognise the threats to their deeply valued civil liberties when they learned more about the Act. Combined with an extensive education campaign, Kranich and a growing core of volunteers attended community events, worked with student groups at Penn State, passed out flyers, and talked with people to “get a sense of the community”.