Issue 88, Winter 2002/2003

New Yorkers learned a lot about the First Amendment from former Mayor Giuliani. He was sued for infringing free speech more than any mayor in memory, and maybe in history. Ironically this became a living civics lesson. Even those who disagreed vehemently with the message supported the KKK’s right to demonstrate peaceably at City Hall. Civil rights activists, housing advocates and taxi drivers who had been stung by the Mayor’s policies understood the principles at stake.

A new national civics lesson is in the making, thanks to an Administration that disregards First Amendment rights on a grand scale, embracing government secrecy, restrictions on public access to information, and invasion of personal privacy to an unprecedented degree.

Even before the “war on terrorism,” Vice President Cheney claimed “executive privilege” to prevent disclosing information about meetings on energy policy. President Bush blocked release of presidential papers, and put his own papers as governor of Texas in his father’s Presidential Library, which is not subject to the state’s open records law.

After 9/11 things got worse: restrictions on press reporting on U.S. actions in Afghanistan; tighter rules for obtaining information under FOIA; secret detentions and immigration proceedings; removal of material from federal repositories and agency web sites. At the same time, the FBI is able to investigate individuals who are not suspected of criminal activity, intercept online communications, and secretly obtain information about book purchases and library withdrawals. Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) invites untrained civilians to report on “suspicious” activities. And now we have Total Information Awareness (For story, click here).

These events could profoundly alter our assumptions about freedom and privacy of personal communications, open government, press freedoms, and the right to dissent. If the abuses of unchecked power become apparent—which they will—this new living civics lesson could dramatically demonstrate the importance of endangered constitutional rights.

There’s some hope. Recently we received this message: “What you say is so important and people need to hear it, although not all will listen or understand. The pendulum, I’m afraid, is swinging far out to the right and we are facing perilous times ….” Thanks. We needed that.