Taking Liberties

Tumultuous times ahead as the Montana ACLU turns 30


On Dec. 4, the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) celebrates its 30th anniversary. For three decades, this sparsely-staffed state affiliate has championed the cause of civil liberties in the courts and the Legislature, staving off governmental encroachments on such fundamental liberties as due process, privacy, freedom of expression, reproductive self-determination, and the separation of church and state. In some cases, the Montana ACLU has been instrumental in establishing and codifying those rights into law, including voting rights for Montana’s Native Americans, gender equality in public education and athletics, and the humane treatment of the mentally ill, to name a few of its successes.

Formed in the wake of the Vietnam War at a time of unprecedented domestic turmoil, widespread governmental abuse of power and heightened civic awareness, the Montana ACLU was born at the same time as the Montana Constitution, still one of the nation’s most enlightened safeguards of individual liberties. Not surprisingly, powerful ideas often coalesce and take shape in history when they are most needed.

Consider, for example, the events of 1920. The passage of the 19th Amendment had just given women the right to vote, leading to the formation of the League of Women Voters. On Sept. 16, 1920, a terrorist bomb rocked Wall Street, killing 30 bystanders. Then U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer staged the infamous “Palmer Raids,” rounding up and deporting thousands of labor organizers, anti-war activists and other immigrants, who were never charged with any crime, tried in a court of law, given legal representation or allowed to face their accusers. Out of this wholesale denial of due process the national ACLU was born.

If these events have an eerie familiarity to them, they should. Since Sept. 11, this nation has witnessed an unprecedented trampling of civil liberties that took two centuries to establish. We’ve seen the detention of more than 1,000 immigrants, mostly of Middle Eastern descent, whose names and whereabouts have still not been released, despite numerous Freedom of Information requests. With a single stroke of the executive pen, the U.S. Secretary of Defense has been granted the power to form secret military tribunals to try suspected terrorists overseas, including the power to set the rules of the trial and hand down sentences of life imprisonment or death. A new federal Bureau of Prisons regulation now allows the government to listen in on conversations between inmates and their attorneys, a gross violation of the long-recognized right of attorney-client privilege established under the Sixth Amendment. Or consider the “USA Patriot Act of 2001,” signed by President Bush into law last month with only minimal debate in Congress and no public hearings. This sweeping act broadly expands the power of law enforcement to search homes and offices without a warrant, to conduct surveillance on American citizens and suspected “domestic terrorists,” and obtain sensitive financial, medical, mental health and educational records without judicial oversight. Some members of Congress later admitted that they didn’t even know what they were voting on because they were never given a copy of the bill to refer to.

“I think there’s a storm brewing,” says Montana ACLU Executive Director Scott Crichton. “I think people are pretty concerned about what’s going on, but they don’t know the details of what’s going on.” Happy birthday, ACLU. You’ve got your work cut out for you.

• Number of people detained by the U.S. Department of Justice in connection with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: 1,182

• Number of days that Dr. Al-Badr Al-Hazmi, a 34-year-old Saudi Arabian doctor living in San Antonio, was incarcerated by the FBI as a “material witness” to the Sept. 11 attacks before “being cleared”: 13

• Number of days that passed before his family and attorney could speak to him, or were told where he was being detained: 6

• Number of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers who were holding U.S. Social Security cards: 19

• Estimated number of identity theft cases nationwide each year, according to the General Accounting Office: 40,000

• Estimated cost of issuing to the American public “enhanced” Social Security cards with facial-recognition technology that identifies and validates cardholders: $4 billion

• Number of images stored in the database of Viisage Technologies, makers of the facial recognition software used to scan the crowd during last February’s Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla.: 7 million

• Number of facial images Viisage claims it adds to its database each day: 15,000

• Number of children whose names, addresses and confidential psychological records were accidentally posted on a University of Montana Web site last month: 62

• Number of “puppet-making activists” arrested by police before they got a chance to march outside the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia last year: 64

• Number of those activists whose charges were later dismissed by a judge: 64

• Number of hours that 600 protesters were detained (but never charged) on buses by Washington, D.C. police for demonstrating against the U.S. prison-industrial complex: 16

• Number of people executed in the United States since Sept. 11: 13

• Number of them who were children: 1

• Number of children executed in United States in the last four years: 9

• Number of other nations in the world that allow the execution of children: 3

• Number of months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that President Franklin Roosevelt said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety:” 1

• Number of months after Roosevelt’s eloquent call to conscience that the War Department persuaded him to order the internment of Japanese Americans: 13

• Number of saboteurs secretly tried and executed by a military commission under President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II: 6


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