Spitzer discusses threats to civil liberties

Arthur Spitzer’s clients have included the Ku Klux Klan, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and most recently, people secretly detained by the government after Sept. 11, 2001. The common thread, said Spitzer LAW ’74 , is civil liberties — which he maintains are now at risk given the ongoing war on terrorism.

Spitzer spoke to about 15 students gathered in the Branford common room Saturday afternoon. The legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, Spitzer discussed assaults on liberties since Sept. 11, 2001 in cases of profiling, domestic spying, and the disregard of due process. Spitzer is currently working for the release of the names of those arrested secretly after the attacks in September 2001.

The speech was sponsored by several student groups including Students Against Sweatshops, Yale Coalition for Peace, and the Yale College chapter of the ACLU.

Spitzer prefaced his remarks with optimism.

“Things could have been and could be worse,” he said of the current state of civil liberties. Though there were attacks against Muslims after Sept. 11, 2001, Spitzer said they were condemned, proving “how far the country has come in the last 50 years in understanding the values of diversity.”

But Spitzer said the government, while condemning acts of hatred after Sept. 11, 2001, has itself been waging an assault on liberties. In cases of profiling, the FBI went on a nationwide manhunt, Spitzer said, indiscriminately arresting anyone of Muslim heritage. Many of those arrested were deported because of visa violations, Spitzer said, but their identities still remain a mystery.

“We don’t know who they are, when and where they were arrested, whether they had a lawyer,” Spitzer said.

Spitzer also discussed domestic spying, which he said was intended to protect the nation while stripping citizens of their civil liberties. By enlisting millions of Americans — such as letter carriers and anyone who has access to homes and businesses — to be spies, Spitzer said, some innocent citizen who might have an Islamic-related book on his coffee table might become another victim of profiling.

Once arrested by the government for reasons related to the new “war on terrorism,” Spitzer added, people should not expect to be treated justly or with due process. A week after Sept. 11, 2001, Spitzer explained, the USA Patriot Act was rushed through legislation to become a law.

Spitzer criticized portions of the act that allow people to remain in custody for an indefinite amount of time during the war on terrorism.

“Keep [a detainee] in until the war is over,” Spitzer said, imitating the act. “What war? The war on terrorism. When will it be over? Not in my lifetime.”

“It might not be over until you all have grandchildren,” Spitzer said later.

Spitzer said that the war on terrorism has brought into question the idea of suspending some civil liberties during times of war. Spitzer said he believes that it is not necessary to take away civil liberties in any major way just because a war is going on but he said he recognizes that there are exceptions.

“The suspension [of civil liberties] needs to be limited to a time frame,” Spitzer said. “The idea that we are going to suspend our civil liberties in a major way until the war on terrorism is over is beyond justification.”

Neema Trivedi ’05, who helped organize the talk, said she thought Spitzer would have insight on this interesting and timely topic.

“I’m glad a lot of students were able to come and were interested in what he had to say,” Trivedi said. “Many people associate the ACLU with radicalism but his talk showed that they do work on issues that affect all of us.”

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