Freedom Fighters

Based on the scant press coverage, a person might conclude it was a noble publicity stunt, at best: On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a group of 30 community activists organized by the Minnesota Lawyers Guild stood outside the U.S. Courthouse in downtown Minneapolis to announce their commitment to civil rights and civil liberties in the wake of the terrorist attacks of last September 11.

In particular, news that the group wanted to repeal the U.S. Patriot Act struck me as particularly futile. After all, when the Bush-Ashcroft antiterrorism measure--which, among other things, relaxes standards for government surveillance on an Orwellian scale--was bum-rushed through Congress in late October, no one blinked (save for the ACLU and a few lefty columnists). Not even U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, who may well regret that decision when he tries to get the vote out next fall.

As it turns out, though, the group's action statement, signed by some 60 organizations and individuals, from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Wahl, is right on time. This afternoon, January 30, at 2:00 p.m., Rep. Rich Stanek, a Republican from Maple Grove, will introduce an omnibus antiterrorism bill in the Minnesota legislature.

"We know some of the issues in the bill walk a fine line [between public safety and civil liberties]," acknowledges Stanek, a 19-year veteran police officer. "And I think you're going to see some language in our bill that mirrors the Patriot Act."

Much of Stanek's proposal promises to enjoy tripartisan support, especially those sections concerning the transport of hazardous materials, the increased penalties for falsely reporting a crime, and the $25 million worth of appropriations to tighten security at public utilities, prepare for bioterrorism, and train peace officers. There are a number of proposed policy changes, however, that should rile up socially conscious liberals and small-government conservatives alike.

Peter Erlinder, a signer of the guild's action statement and a professor of constitutional law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, explains that the U.S. Patriot Act "loosens the rules for the federal government, but not necessarily for state governments." In other words, just because the Patriot Act passed with flying colors doesn't mean state officials, state police, or members of Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension have been given the same latitude as the feds when chasing suspected terrorists. And with good reason, he argues: "There is simply no evidence that, in this area, there is any shortcoming in Minnesota law. If changes are made, they're not for reasons of necessity. It's either because of fear or demagoguery."

Stanek's bill broadly defines an "act of terrorism" as anything that occurs when someone "intentionally commits, attempts to commit or conspires to commit, either directly or indirectly, any crime of violence or destructive act which is intended to injure another or would be reasonably foreseeable to injure another with the purpose to terrorize a considerable number of members of the public." It's not a stretch to imagine that such a vague definition could be applied to labor unions, peace activists, and even political parties, if one or more members engaged in a violent protest that a law enforcement officer concluded was intended to terrorize another group.

Especially given that Stanek's bill fails to define "terrorize." Says Erlinder: "Homicide, first-degree murder, burglary--historically those are well-defined crimes. This definition is so malleable, because it allows for law enforcement to make judgment calls on a case-by-case basis."

Stanek's bill places the phrase "acts of terrorism" on a list of crimes that law enforcement officials can use to justify the use of wiretaps. The standard for obtaining "roving wiretaps"--which allow officials to monitor all phones in an area suspects are expected to travel--would be lowered as well. This is especially troublesome to civil libertarians, because it increases the chances that non-targeted citizens could be caught up in a fishing expedition. The bill also makes it much easier to seize voice mail and other electronic messages, and it allows for such searches without informing the suspect. Finally, telecommunications providers would be compelled to make "emergency disclosure to governmental entities of customer electronic communications to protect life and limb." (And again, what's an "emergency"?)

The bill may prompt a healthy debate in the legislature. But if public support of the war and understandable anxiety about terrorism puts it on a fast track to Gov. Jesse Ventura's desk, Stanek is confident the governor will sign. "I've been working with the governor's staff to make sure that what we do isn't somehow outside the boundaries of what he finds acceptable," the legislator asserts. "The last thing I want him to do is veto this."

On February 2 the Lawyers Guild will hold an organizational meeting at William Mitchell. The goal is to form a coalition to monitor the state legislature, lobby elected officials, and heighten public awareness of any legislation that trades basic civil liberties for the illusion of public safety. To say the least, they face an uphill battle. But after watching Wellstone and Co. trade principle for politics, it's good to see someone get into the fight.

Editor's note: All the Rage will appear every other week. E-mail the author at [email protected]

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