Civil Liberties & Homeland Security

Civil Liberties & Homeland Security

Now Online
To promote discussion and understanding about Civil Liberties and Homeland Security, the LWVUS has created a webpage focusing on the issue.

This series of papers is part of the League's efforts to assure the protection of American civil liberties in the face of the current terrorist threat. They were developed to help local Leagues engage their communities in understanding why the United States is threatened by external forces today and in considering what it will take to overcome that threat.

Forum on the Patriot Act
Article LWV RI Voter, September 2005

LWVRI and The Roger Williams University, Ralph R. Papitto School of Law are sponsoring a forum, "The USA Patriot Act and its Effect on Civil Liberties and National Security", to be held on Monday, September 26th, from 7 PM to 9 PM, at the Roger Williams Law School.

The format will have a panel of three speakers, chosen to ensure that the major positions pro and con about the Patriot Act will be heard. The panelists are: Robert Corrente, U.S. Attorney for RI; Steve Brown, Executive Director, ACLU of RI; and Peter Margulies, Professor of Law at Roger Williams University. The moderator is Betsy Garland, Administrative Minister at the Beneficent Congregational Church. The League has asked the panelists to comment about several Patriot Act sections in particular:

  • Section 213, which authorizes "sneak and peek" search warrants;
  • ection 215, which authorizes the FBI to compel judges to issue warrants to seize library, medical, and business records without notifying the person involved;
  • Section 505, which authorizes the Justice Department to seize, secretly and without judicial approval, business and financial records, and membership lists of organizations that use the Internet; and
  • Section 802, which defines "domestic terrorism" to include any act that is "dangerous to human life", and is intended to influence governmental policy.  Protesters could be targeted under this section.

After all panelists have spoken, they will have the opportunity to ask questions of each other; then the audience will be able to ask questions of the panelists.

Many sections of the Act are due to expire at the end of this year. The current Administration believes that the Act is vital to national security. However, many believe that numerous sections of the Act are threatening to our civil liberties. As of the beginning of September, the House and Senate have each passed a bill revising the Act. A Conference Committee is underway to reconcile these two bills.

Kay J. Maxwell, the President of the LWVUS, wrote on September 25, 2003, "The League of Women Voters strongly believes that basic civil liberties must be preserved and protected as the nation seeks to guard against terrorism..." She wrote on August 19, 2005, that the League intends to "fight against the (Patriot Act's) unnecessary infringements on the basic rights that uphold our nation's democratic system of government...we have just a brief window of opportunity to replace the law's most destructive provisions, while strengthening our national security..."

"...By allowing secret investigations without probable cause and judicial review, the Patriot Act erodes the executive branch's accountability to the American people-- and denies the legislative and
judicial branches the opportunity to review the actions of law enforcement and national security agencies."

"...the League...(supports) a sensible legislative alternative to the USA Patriot Act-- the Security and Freedom Enhancement (SAFE) Act. The SAFE Act would provide checks on some of the most extreme sections of the Patriot Act-- giving law enforcement officials broad authority to combat terrorism, while protecting innocent citizens from unrestricted and unnecessary government surveillance."

We hope that you will come to this forum at the Roger Williams Law School. They have assured us that there will be plenty of parking space. If you drive to the Roger Williams entrance on Metacom Ave., the staff will tell you where you can park. See you there!

Individual Liberties
LWV US position

Statement of Position on Individual Liberties, as Announced by National Board, March 1982:
The League of Women Voters of the United States believes in the individual liberties guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. The League is convinced that individual rights now protected by the Constitution should not be weakened or abridged.

Civil Liberties Background
February 24, 2004

The League of Women Voters strongly believes that basic civil liberties must be preserved and protected as the nation seeks to guard against terrorism and other threats to national security. However, we are particularly concerned about Administration proposals for a new Domestic Security Enhancement Act, also known as Patriot Act II, the impact of provisions of the USA Patriot Act and the possible extension of the sunset provisions of that Act.

Members of the League are steadfast in their conviction that the need to protect against security threats to America must be balanced with the need to preserve the very liberties that are the foundation of this country. There are fundamental principles that guard our liberty -- from independent judicial review of law enforcement actions to prohibitions on indiscriminate searches -- that must be preserved.

The League's History of Protecting Civil Liberties
The League of Women Voters has a long history of protecting civil liberties. In 1942, during World War II, the League wished "to preserve the greatest degree of civil liberty consistent with national safety." That concern continued during the "witch hunt" period of the early 1950s when the League conducted a two-year, community education program known as the "Freedom Agenda" which provided opportunities for Americans to discuss and learn about their freedoms under the Bill of Rights. This was followed by a League study on the federal loyalty/security programs, culminating in a policy position that emphasized protection of individual liberties against major threats to basic constitutional rights. Today, local and state Leagues around the country are educating their communities about current threats to civil liberties.

Opposition to Attacks on Civil Liberties
In early February 2003, a proposal of an expanded version of the USA Patriot Act was obtained by the Center for Public Integrity who released it to the press and public. Known as the Domestic Security Enhancement Act (DSEA), the proposed legislation discussed in the Administration would endanger many key rights of individuals. While it is still not fully clear what impact the USA Patriot Act will have on the lives of ordinary citizens, the "proposed" DSEA would incorporate and expand on some of the most controversial and threatening aspects of the USA Patriot Act by:

  • Including an overly broad definition of terrorism so that government action could be directed against protesters and organizations that voice disagreement with the policies of the leadership of the United States; 
  • uthorizing government officials to obtain data, such as financial records and library records of individuals, without a warrant or involvement by the courts;
  • Providing for indefinite detention of individuals, including American citizens, without disclosure of names or filing of charges; and
  • Ending existing court-imposed limits on law enforcement spying on political and religious organizations.

When Congress passed the USA Patriot Act, it gave the federal government unprecedented powers, but balanced this by including sunset provisions that limit certain parts of the Act to five years duration. It has only been eighteen months since the law was passed and already members of Congress have initiated efforts to make permanent many of the law enforcement provisions before the trial period is complete. Not enough time has passed for Congress and the American public to gauge the impact of the Patriot Act and to ensure that civil liberties are not undermined.

In addition to threats to basic individual liberties that are central to our civic life, the League is concerned about the potential impact that the USA Patriot Act and the proposed DSEA could have on the checks and balances of government. Accountability and responsibility to the people require that unnecessary secrecy between the President and Congress be eliminated. It is critical that Congress know of the actions of the Executive and Judiciary branches and that the courts be kept apprised of and have the opportunity to review the actions of law enforcement.

Support the Security and Freedom Ensured Act
The League of Women Voters supports the bi-partisan Security and Freedom Ensured (SAFE) Act (S. 1709) which addresses some of the most problematic provisions of the Patriot Act. Specifically, the SAFE Act would:

  1. Limit "sneak and peek" warrants (secret warrants with which the government can search homes and/or businesses) to specific instances including preservation of life or physical safety. The SAFE Act would also increase reporting on the use of "sneak and peak" searches allowing for more meaningful oversight on the use of such searches.
  2. Require evidence that a suspect is a spy or foreign agent to search business records, such as library and bookstore records.
  3. Allow certain provisions of the Patriot Act, including sneak and peek search warrants, to expire in 2005. Congress could review those provisions and decide to reauthorize them at that time.

Under the SAFE Act, law enforcement officials would still have broad authority to combat terrorism. At the same time, the bill would protect innocent Americans from unrestricted government surveillance.

Support the Freedom to Read
The League of Women Voters is also concerned about the impacts that the USA Patriot Act currently is having on the free and open exchange of knowledge by patrons of libraries and bookstores. One provision of the USA Patriot Act allows law enforcement to obtain personally identifiable information regarding bookstore and library patrons without their knowledge and without a subpoena. The League of Women Voters supports the Freedom to Read Protection Act, H.R. 1157, sponsored by Representative Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and the Library and Bookseller Protect Act, S. 1158, sponsored by Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Both bills would exempt libraries and bookstores from the provision of the USA Patriot Act that provides expanded access to personal information about individuals' reading habits and interests.


Revised: 07/19/07


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