The Right to Dissent and the Threat to Core American Values

Maintaining a democracy is not easy work. It requires active participation from an informed citizenry. To that end, our government is required to protect the “uninhibited, robust and wide-open” public debate inherently found in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Without such protection, democracy becomes ineffective.

Successful public debate relies on the ability of citizens to dissent peacefully, making their voices heard without fear of government reprisal for their words or actions. The PATRIOT Act, as it stands, seriously intrudes on the basic American right of debate and dissent. For that reason, we all need to protect our right to be heard, a right that has historically benefited minority and immigrant communities. Traditionally, anti-immigration laws and overreaching prosecutorial discretion make these groups especially vulnerable when speaking out in dissent.

The Justice Department itself recognizes on its web site that “peaceful political discourse and dissent is one of America’s most cherished freedoms.” Why does it support a law that supplies the government with the tools to successfully and easily stifle that debate?

The government may, and has, used provisions of the PATRIOT Act to acquire information on large groups of U.S. citizens, meeting and organizing both legally and peacefully. In 2004, for example, the government demanded that Drake University hand over a list of people who had attended an anti-war forum at that school. That forum included workshops and nonviolence training sessions.

To take one example, section 505 of the PATRIOT Act allows the government to obtain such information “to protect against” terrorism as part of intelligence investigations. This can and does include all kinds of personal information about political and religious activities. Importantly, section 505 allows the government to gather this information in secret with virtually no independent oversight, so long as the FBI identifies the personal information as necessary. This means that the FBI can demand an entire group’s membership database just because it believes one person in that group has a connection to terrorism. Moreover, the government never has to disclose who that person is or who else is on the list.

This means that mere membership in a religious group –” a particular synagogue, church, or mosque –” or in a completely lawful political movement could lead to basically unfettered government ability to access both private and personal information.

As the debate continues behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, it is vitally important that we engage in a public examination of the troubling aspects of the PATRIOT Act., before our right to have those conversations is permanently cut off.