My hometown has added itself to the growing list of towns around the country that are standing up for the Bill of Rights.
In early October, at the behest of a small citizens' group, the South Brunswick (N.J.) Township Council unanimously adopted a resolution that calls for Congress to repeal several sections of the USA PATRIOT Act, which the resolution says "erode the public's right to privacy, right to due process, right to counsel, right to be free from any unreasonable searches and seizures and right to basic First Amendment freedoms that are guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States."
The USA PATRIOT Act -- officially the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act -- has been on the books since October 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when it was passed under cover of night with little debate and then signed into law by President George W. Bush.
I've been critical of the PATRIOT Act since its passage. The legislation offers few real protections for Americans, while unnecessarily expanding the powers of both federal and local law enforcement organizations. It is, to put it mildly, an offense to the Bill of Rights, the document that defines what is most valuable about the American republic.
And I'm not alone. Critics of the PATRIOT Act include not only liberal and left-leaning groups like the American Civil Liberties Union or the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, but conservatives like former US Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who have raised concerns about the legislation's impact on the Fourth Amendment. Mr. Barr has said that the PATRIOT Act "threatens to eviscerate the Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures, even as it undermines the notion of privacy embodied therein" and that so-called "sneak-and-peek" warrants turn "a man's home (into) the government's play box."
The PATRIOT Act -- like proposals to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for instance -- was tied to Sept. 11 without it actually being about Sept. 11. It was -- as the ACLU has pointed out -- "part of a long-standing law enforcement wish list that had been previously rejected by Congress, in some cases repeatedly." The president and his Republican allies in the US Senate and House of Representatives took advantage of the fear following the attacks to push the legislation through.
In doing so, it trampled on the Bill of Rights, shifting the balance too far in the direction of law enforcement and away from individual rights.
In advocating the council resolution, the South Brunswick residents made clear that the PATRIOT Act was an unwarranted expansion of government power.
"I believe the PATRIOT Act presently tilts heavily toward government power and too far away from individual freedom," said Kendall Park resident Herb Gopstein, one of a half dozen local residents who pushed the council to pass the resolution.
South Brunswick is one of about 400 municipalities across the country asking that the legislation be revamped to "respect and not intrude upon the fundamental rights and liberties of all people."
According to the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, one of the organizations working to overturn or reform the law, community resolutions like South Brunswick's may have helped push more House members to vote against its reauthorization than initially had been expected. The 171 House members who opposed reauthorization represented 301 communities with resolutions, according to the BORDC, while the 257 members who supported the bill represented districts in which just 85 communities have adopted resolutions.
The BORDC says that a motion to add a four-year sunset provision to the bill, which preceded the reauthorization and failed by a narrow margin, was backed by 209 House members representing 312 towns that had adopted resolutions and opposed. By contrast, the 218 who voted against the sunset provisions represented districts in which just 74 anti-PATRIOT Act resolutions had passed.
Nancy Talanian, director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, said the resolutions are an important tool in forcing reform because they have extended debate on legislation's encroachment on civil liberties.
"The resolutions and the public education on civil liberties issues that precedes their passage has extended the debate about the PATRIOT Act and other post-9/11 laws and policies from the halls of Congress to town halls, living rooms and church basements nationwide," she said in a press release on the organization's Web site.
She added that House and Senate members need to view the resolutions as evidence that the American public is not supportive of limitations on constitutional rights. She said the resolutions show that citizens are "calling for their representatives in Congress to set aside party loyalties and to remember their obligations to uphold their constituents' constitutional rights to speak freely, to be left alone if they are doing nothing wrong, and to receive due process of law if they are accused of a crime."
Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press in central New Jersey. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.