General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Civil Liberties and the 'War on Terror'

General Assembly 2008 Event 4019

GA Planning Committee

Speakers: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Heidi Boghasian, esq.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) was introduced by a neighbor and constituent as an outstanding Girl Scout leader, busy mother of three children, and a rising star in the US Congress. She was elected to Congress 3 years ago and now serves on the House Judiciary Committee. She is a strong advocate of UU values: for her, freedom, reason and tolerance are basic; and she believes there is no more important right than the right to privacy, the right to be left alone.

"Freedom is easily given up and hard to get back," she declared. During the last 6 years, much of our freedom has been lost. Now, our mission is to find our way back.

After 9/11, we were told we could be secure or free, but not both. History shows some of our worst misjudgments have been in times of war, and the passage of the PATRIOT Act was one such misjudgment. When Schultz first joined the House Judiciary Committee in June 2005, there was a Republican majority in Congress. She described in detail some of the difficulties this situation entailed, and concluded with the understatement: "It is much easier to make progress when we are in the majority!"

"Only now do we have the numbers in the House to fix it," she said. But progress is slow. She has cosponsored bills to restore civil rights, but some bills are stone-walled in the Senate and others are vetoed by the President. Often, the result is a compromise bill that she feels compelled to vote against.

She described the media circus surrounding the Terri Shiavo case in Florida. "I was new in the House, and I was appalled at the gall of Congress to stick its nose in where it did not belong. Congress is not the appropriate body to decide these matters." She attributes it to hysteria. "It would not have happened without 9/11" she concluded.

Wiretapping was instituted with no publicity, essentially in secret. "The President believes he is above the law," she said. "And freedom, easily given up, is hard to get back."

She concluded, "I will do everything in my power to restore our civil liberties and I am grateful to have you by my side."

As Schultz departed for her son's baseball game, Heidi Boghasian took to the podium to describe her work as Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild.She described the Guild as "Lawyers you'll like." The Guild works as a political and social force in the service of the people.

She described cases when the police have over-reached their boundaries and exploited public fear. At present, the police are aimed at preventing crimes that might happen rather than prosecuting crimes that have already happened, and in this situation they often over-reach. She described arrests without probable cause and the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters. Video tapes are an essential tool in the defense of civil liberties; in some cases they have been used to show that police tapes were edited to portray events in a manner that is more favorable to the police.

Recently, Animal rights activists have been targeted as a result of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. The "terrorist" label is used to intimidate activists of all sorts.

Racial profiling has resulted in thousands of people being locked up, often for minor infractions. These people are portrayed as terrorists, but few really are so. "Any link to a terrorist makes you a terrorist suspect," she added. And the word "terrorist" has an emotional impact on juries.

In summary, as part of the "War on Terror," the government is going after fringe groups and using words such as "unpatriotic" and "terrorist" to intimidate activists, to inflate sentences, to diminish human rights, and to encroach on civil liberties. The National Lawyers Guild is working to monitor these cases, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is working in Congress to restore our civil liberties.

Reported by Mike McNaughton; edited by Deb Weiner.