Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, federal agencies can collect information about you, and anyone ordered to provide information is prohibited from discussing it.
Rushed into law after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the Patriot Act has given the federal government unprecedented new power, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The civil liberties group brought its "Patriot Act Road Trip" to St. John's Unitarian Universalist Church in Clifton on Aug. 5.
"The fact that you are simply exercising your right to free speech can be construed as some type of support of terrorism," said Barry Hargrove, national 9/11 organizer with the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. "This is troubling to the ACLU."
In a nationwide tour, the ACLU is urging cities to pass resolutions opposing the law.
"To date, about 145 communities comprising 16 million people in 27 states have passed pro-civil liberties, city council and statewide resolutions that, in some cases, actually take legal steps to prevent local implementation of these repressive federal policies," Hargrove said.
The ACLU wants changes in the broad federal authority, under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, to investigate U.S. citizens and foreign residents based in part on their exercise of First Amendment rights, Hargrove said. Section 215 allows the FBI to order any person or entity to turn over "any tangible things," so long as the FBI specifies that the order is "for an authorized investigation . . . to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities." The "tangible things" the government can demand include lists of library books borrowed, Web sites visited or details about involvement in religious or political groups that might be suspected of terrorism, Hargrove said.
Ironically, that kind of power could actually make terrorism harder to detect. The search for terrorists is like a needle in a haystack, he said.
"What the Patriot Act has done, rather than make the search more effective, is this haystack has gotten bigger," he said. "Now that the haystack has gotten bigger, how can we justify all these powers we're giving to the federal government?"
Section 215 of the Patriot Act can be abused to target Muslims and Americans of Middle Eastern descent, barring them from flights or detaining them because air marshals "didn't like the way the looked," according to Reginald Shuford, staff attorney for the ACLU National Headquarters.
The ACLU is pursuing lawsuits over racial profiling by federal air marshals under the guise of airline security. The agency is the first to challenge the Patriot Act in court, Shuford said.
Federal officials are attempting to assure Americans the Patriot Act won't be used to target people advocating amendments or repeal of the act, Hargrove said.
"I always thought that when we exercise our right to free speech, when we engage in healthy debate about particular policies passed down from the administration, it should be encouraged; and the exercise of debate and exchange of ideas is naturally a prerequisite of our democracy -- one that is necessary after an event impactful as 9/11," Hargrove said. "However, our administration doesn't seem to feel this type of debate is healthy, even though the most significant piece of legislation to come out of the attack passed without any meaningful debate."
The ACLU Cincinnati Working Group is a new organization established to educate the community on civil liberties and to develop a local resolution opposing the Patriot Act. The NAACP passed a national resolution three weeks ago for its local branches to support citizens working on these resolutions, Hargrove said.
"I want all of you to work for a resolution movement in this community to fix this legislation," he said. "If we can do it in Detroit, if we can do it in Alaska, in Hawaii, in Texas and in Vermont, we can do it in Cincinnati."
If Congress won't act, citizens will have to force them, Shuford said.
"These resolutions are to get a drumbeat rolling across the country, a drumbeat that would be heard by senators and representatives on Capitol Hill that the constituents do not support this legislation," he said.
The ACLU Cincinnati Working Group meets at 7 p.m. Sept. 2 in room 118 of the University of Cincinnati School of Law. For more information, contact Robert Ryan at 513-207-3964 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Muhammad Khan at 513-774-9885 or email@example.com.