This day marks a somber occasion for us. We celebrate the Bill of Rights as part of Constitution Day. At the same time, we mourn the loss of freedoms that define us as Americans.
The world has changed. We live in a “new normal.” We must sacrifice some freedom for our collective security. These words, and others like them, have been an all too common theme throughout American history. Crises, both real and imagined, have been used as a pretext for some of the worst abuses of First Amendment freedoms.
The ACLU was founded in 1920 in response to the excesses of the so-called Red Scare following the First World War. Today, the challenges we face to freedom of speech, press, religion, association, and conscience have never been greater.
Americans increasingly are denied access to information vital to self-governance. Political dissent is silenced. Illegal or embarrassing government programs are hidden from the public view. At the same time, the government has secretly pried into every aspect of our private lives. In this surveillance society, our most personal and intimate activities have become an open book for officials to read at their whim without our knowledge.
The Bush administration, supported by a pliant Congress, has used 9/11 as a pretext to needlessly deprive us of our rights under the false blanket of security. But the war on our freedoms did not begin that tragic day seven years ago. It began with the founding of our nation. Less than a decade after the First Amendment was ratified, Congress enacted the Sedition Act of 1798, criminalizing dissent. Then, like now, the greatest threat to our freedoms has come from at home, not abroad.
Liberty and security are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive. We can be safe and free. A vibrant First Amendment is our greatest defense to those who would do us harm. Unless we restore our rights, the enemies of freedom will have won.
We must not resign ourselves to this government-imposed fate. Instead, each of us has a responsibility to stand up for freedom. Declare “I’m a Constitution voter.” Take action today, so that we will all have something to celebrate at next year’s Constitution Day.