(FinalCall.com) –The small city of Arcata—population 16,000—along the northern coast of California has become the first in the nation to pass an ordinance that outlaws voluntary compliance with the Patriot Act.
“My opinion, and this is strictly my opinion, although the law passed with a four to one vote, people here felt that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution were under attack and we had to take a stand,” Arcata Councilman David Meserve told The Final Call during a phone interview.
Mr. Meserve, a contractor, is serving his first term as a council member, but that did not stop him from drafting an ordinance requiring town officials not to comply with the 342-page federal Patriot Act, passed by Congress one month after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The anti-terrorism act gives the government unprecedented powers to spy on citizens. The fine for breaking the law, which goes into effect on May 27 in Arcata, is $57. It applies only to the top nine managers of the city, telling them to refer any Patriot Act request to the City Council.
A spokeswoman for the San Francisco F.B.I. office, whose jurisdiction includes Arcata, said people misunderstand the Patriot Act.
“Although people may believe their privacy rights are being infringed upon, the agency still has to show probable cause for any action we take,” the spokeswoman said.
Arcata becomes the 92nd city to adopt a resolution against the Patriot Act. In most places, though, the resolutions carry no legal weight. According to Nancy Talanian, director of the Florence, Mass.-based Bill of Rights Defense Committee, efforts are underway to rally support for similar resolutions in cities such as New York, Chicago, Miami, Seattle, Boston and Portland. She said that citizen groups, worried about a compliant Congress, are not waiting for their elected officials to act before launching a campaign against the proposed sequel to the Patriot Act, the “Domestic Security Enhancement Act,” a.k.a. Patriot Act II.
New York activists, under the umbrella of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a coalition of some 20 organizations, are working with City Council members to draft a resolution that will be introduced in a few weeks, according to Udi Ofer, project director of the New York Civil Liberty Union. He said New York City would have a bill that calls upon the city to monitor abuses in the areas of pervasive government eavesdropping and surveillance, discriminatory and repressive immigration policies, preventive detention and military tribunals.
The bill also asks local officials to ensure that any new security measures enhance the public safety without impairing constitutional rights and infringing on civil liberties.
But critics of the resolution, such as Manhattan Institute scholar Steve Malanga, say that civil liberty advocates are trying to undermine the Patriot Act and other federal initiatives to fight terrorism.
“Basically, it’s what I would call a throw-back-the-clock City Council—stuck in the radical sixties,” Mr. Malanga said. “They argue that federal anti-terrorist efforts erode civil liberties. Any resolution passed by the City Council would represent an unprecedented intrusion by uninformed, unsophisticated local legislators.”
Concerned citizens ought to organize and act politically, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of Epic.org, an Internet watchdog group focusing on privacy and technology.
“The Bush administration has indicated that the war on terror is a war without end, which threatens an equally ominous endlessness to government practices that impinge on people’s privacy,” Mr. Rotenberg added.
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo insists that the new laws such as the Patriot Act are constitutional.
“We are still living under the Constitution,” Mr. Corallo said, asserting that protection of Civil liberties is built into all anti-terrorism legislation. “We would have it no other way. Everything we do, particularly in the realm of surveillance, we do in the conformity and supervision of the courts.”
Supporters of the resolutions in cities such as Boulder, Colo.; Santa Fe, N.M.; Cambridge, Mass.; Berkeley, Calif.; Tampa, Fla.; Fairbanks, Alaska; and Grants Pass, Ore., say the measures have grown out of a belief that the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act have given the federal government too much muscle in its war against terrorism at the expense of the average American citizen.
“If New York is successful in passing an anti-Patriot Act resolution, that would send a strong message to the country that even at Ground Zero you cannot give up your liberties for a little security,” Ms. Talanian said.