Statement of Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union , on Launch of ACLU Safe and Free Campaign

October 16, 2002 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON– Thank you all for being here today. My name is Anthony Romero, and I am the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. I am here today to announce the launch of “”Keep America Safe and Free, The ACLU Campaign to Defend the Constitution.”” This $3.5 million campaign is a key part of our broader program to protect civil liberties, especially now in a time of national emergency.

The campaign launch is timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the USA Patriot Act. This law, rushed through Congress in the immediate aftermath of September 11, is responsible for severely altering our nation’s immigration laws, expanding the government’s ability to spy on U.S. citizens, and increasing the capacity for unreasonable searches and seizures.

The “”Keep America Safe and Free Campaign”” will involve private citizens and groups in achieving a powerful new balance between two fundamental values – liberty and security – so that America can be both “”safe and free.”” The Campaign will mobilize our 53 ACLU offices and 300,000 members across the country to litigate, organize and lobby in defense of liberty.

We are reaching out to private citizens because they are the first to experience the impact of governmental restrictions on liberty. The ACLU campaign aims to promote a public debate about proposals and measures that violate civil liberties without increasing our security. American history is replete with examples of unnecessary and harmful restrictions on liberty taken in the heat of war. Each of these was later discredited and eventually rescinded. The challenge before us today is to resist the fear that leads to repression and to promote liberty at the very time it is under attack.

Attorney General Ashcroft has said that information is the best friend of prevention. But it is also true that information is the best friend of liberty. The ACLU will, therefore, step up its efforts to inform the American people of actions taken by the administration and Congress that have the effect of unnecessarily restricting free speech, withholding due process, or challenging the right of judicial review.

Our efforts will include:

  • Monitoring the implementation of the USA Patriot Act
  • Filing lawsuits in state and federal courts
  • Lobbying local and state jurisdictions
  • Organizing at the grass-roots
  • Airing national TV ads (which we will show to you today).

Before we show you the first of these ads I would like to introduce to you three American citizens who, in their pursuit of constitutionally protected free speech, have recently had their loyalty questioned by federal authorities.

Sister Virgine Lawinger – Sister Virgine is part of a Wisconsin group called Peace Action. Last April, she was among a group of 20 activists who were barred from boarding a domestic flight and detained for questioning. The group was going to Washington to demonstrate against the School of the Americas and to learn how to lobby. To this day, no official involved has told them why there were detained and barred from flying. We are helping Sister Virgine file a FOIA request to determine the basis for these unreasonable actions.

Danny Muller – Danny has traveled the world for Voices in the Wilderness, a group that opposes economic sanctions against Iraq. Last November, on a regular visit to the post office, he and his colleague attempted to purchase 4,000 stamps for a mailing they were doing. They requested stamps without the American flag. The clerk asked if Statue of Liberty stamps were OK and they replied, “”Yes, we love liberty.”” The clerk called the police, and Danny and his colleague were questioned about their patriotism. They were unable to purchase stamps that day. The next day when Danny’s colleague returned to the post office he was asked to meet with the Postal Inspector, who quizzed him at length about the Voices in the Wilderness group.

A.J. Brown – During A.J’s freshman year of college she was visited by the Secret Service because someone anonymously reported she had in her possession a poster critical of President Bush. The Secret Service interrogated her at length. Even after they concluded that the poster was harmless, they wanted to know whether she had any maps of Afghanistan or “”pro-Taliban stuff”” in her apartment.

These three separate experiences indicate the resurgence of a disturbing climate in which the government indiscriminately abridges the rights of ordinary citizens. It is these types of actions that need to be highlighted and debated in the “”Keep America Safe and Free Campaign.””

I want to say a few words about our first TV ad. The ad, as you will see, focuses on the attempt by Attorney General John Ashcroft to restrict the liberty that is the foundation of our democracy. By restricting liberty without significantly increasing security, Mr. Ashcroft is sending a false and dangerous message to the American people. His message is that Americans must choose whether they want to be “”safe or free.”” The ACLU, on the other hand, believes that America can be both “”safe and free.””

Mr. Ashcroft has charged us with underestimating the enemy and the threat to our nation. The ACLU does not underestimate the threat to national security, nor do we shrink from the difficult task of defending liberty when it is under attack. We understand that the road ahead is difficult because the enemy is made up of loose networks of fanatics with violent aims not subject to negotiation. Under such conditions, the war on terror is unlikely to come to a clear and decisive end anytime soon.

For this reason the ACLU is concerned about the long term effects on democracy, since the pressures to sacrifice liberty for security will be significant and will build over time.

Mr. Ashcroft seeks to reassure the public by affirming that the American experience has been the history of progressive strengthening of rights and liberties, even in times of war. However, if our liberty is stronger today than in previous times it is precisely because of the individuals and groups he has criticized – those who have questioned and also opposed government actions that would use the cover of national security to trample on civil liberties. Debating and criticizing government actions makes liberty stronger, not weaker.

That debate, fortunately, is now occurring in the federal courts in response to lawsuits filed by the ACLU. It is a vigorous, sober, and much-needed exchange of views over the proper balance between liberty and security in a time of crisis. It is also a reaction to the Attorney General’s insistence on a “”Just Say No”” policy – no judicial review, no counsel, no public disclosure, no open hearings, essentially no due process.

The ACLU’s Campaign to Defend the Constitution will strengthen that debate by broadening it to include the American people.

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