Kevin Keenan LAW ’02 originally invited Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, to Yale to speak about “The Coming Year in Civil Liberties.” But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, he decided the topic of the speech had to change.
“When Sikhs and South Asians were attacked, or anyone who looked South Asian, that’s when it first became clear what a civil liberties crisis this was going to be,” Keenan said. “We couldn’t just sit back. We had to discuss it.”
Strossen spoke on the topic of “Civil Liberties After Sept. 11” to a large crowd of students, faculty and community members in the Law School Auditorium Monday.
Strossen began her talk with the words of a man whom she said she does not often quote.
“In his first address after the attacks,” Strossen said, “[President George W.] Bush told the country, ‘We are the brightest beacon for freedom in the world, and no one will keep that light from shining.'”
These words kept echoing in her mind during that long and difficult week following the attacks, Strossen said.
“They gave me some small consolation,” Strossen said, “as well as inspiration.”
That inspiration has driven Strossen to work tirelessly over the past month to ensure that civil liberties and civil rights are not sacrificed in the attempt to increase national security.
Strossen discussed the ramifications of legislation passed by the Senate and House of Representatives last week — the U.S.A. Act of 2001 in the Senate and the Patriot Act in the House. The bills aimed at increasing national security to defend against terrorism.
Last Friday, the ACLU issued a statement saying it was “bitterly disappointed” by the joint passage of the bills.
“Nothing in that legislation has been shown, or even been claimed, to be necessary or even effective.” Strossen said. “When [Attorney General John] Ashcroft was asked if anything in the legislation would have diverted the catastrophe, he said, ‘No, it wouldn’t.'”
Strossen said the legislation would have implications for the privacy of students by making all student records more easily accessible to government and law enforcement officials.
“[The laws] allow universities to turn over the most detailed information in student files without any evidence that the student is doing something illegal,” Strossen said.
The legislation includes provisions for increased electronic surveillance, not only for those suspected of terrorist activities but also for ordinary citizens, and gives the government discretion to detain and deport any non-citizens, Strossen said.
Strossen said she objected to the lack of debate and discussion over the bill in Congress, saying that Senate representatives had only a three-day weekend to read over the 200-page bill before voting on it.
But Strossen said that in spite of the recent legislation she was heartened by the reluctance of many Americans to compromise their civil rights.
“I don’t think we need to suspend our rights in order to win this,” Derek Lomas ’03 said.
Strossen said concerned citizens wield a tremendous amount of power with their representatives.
“It really is true that every single constituent communication counts. It doesn’t take many communications to get on the radar screen,” she said. “In a major state, it can be as few as 10.”
Strossen ended the speech with a catchy slogan that nevertheless had a serious message.
“Exercise your freedoms, as long as they exist,” Strossen said. “And as long as you exercise them, they will persist.”