Quantcast

John Nichols | The Nation

  •  
John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

Patriot Act Politics

Rarely has the disconnect between the faith of the American people in the bedrock principle that it is possible to be safe and free and the failure of faith on the part of their elected leaders been more evident than in recent days.

There is no question that, outside of Washington, concern runs deep about the assaults on basic liberties contained in the Patriot Act. Eight state legislative chambers – in Alaska, California, Colorado Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana and Vermont -- and 397 local government bodies in communities large and small nationwide have passed resolutions urging Congress to fix the act so that Constitutional protections are not sacrificed in pursuit of the false promise of domestic security.

Americans understand and respect Benjamin Franklin's warning that: "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both."

They also understand and respect U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold's calculation that, with minor changes, the Patriot Act could have preserved "both the national security needs of this country and the rights and freedoms of its citizens."

As the Wisconsin Democrat battled to fix the Patriot Act by eliminating unconstitutional provisions, Feingold reminded the Congress that, "The negative reaction to the Patriot Act has been overwhelming. Over 400 state and local government bodies passed resolutions pleading with Congress to change the law. Citizens have signed petitions, library associations and campus groups have organized to petition the Congress to act, numerous editorials have been written urging Congress not to reauthorize the law without adequate protections for civil liberties. These things occurred because Americans across the country recognize that the Patriot Act includes provisions that pose a threat to their privacy and liberty -- values that are at the very core of what this country represents, of who we are as a people."

Yet, when the Senate and House had an opportunity to make necessary and possible reforms to the act – by protecting the rights of innocent Americans against abuses by government agencies using the act's provisions allowing for subpoena-like "national security letters" and the seizure of library, medical and business records – both chambers chose instead to acquiesce to the Bush administration's demand that the measure be reauthorized without meaningful changes in its content and character.

In the Senate last week, only nine senators -- eight Democrats and Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords -- joined Feingold in holding out for a Patriot Act that preserves basic freedoms and national security. Disappointingly, a number of usual stalwarts for civil liberties, such as Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy, sided with the administration, as did Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and New York Democrat Hillary Clinton. (Feingold, who is getting more serious about seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, would have plenty to debate with Clinton, who is generally seen as the frontrunner for the party's nod.)

In the House, this week's final vote for reauthorization of the act in the form favored by the White House was 280-138. The 138 foes of reauthorization included 124 Democrats, 13 Republicans and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders -- the chamber's most ardent champion of fixing the Patriot Act.

Unfortunately, while veteran Republicans such as Ohio's Mike Oxley and Alaska's Don Young could bring themselves to vote against reauthorization, some of the key Democrats in the House could not. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, voted "no," but Assistant Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel, D-Illinois, sided with the White House.

Feingold says the fight will continue, and he may have some new allies in the Senate after November. In addition to Sanders, who is running as an independent for Vermont's open Senate seat and leads in every poll, Representative Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who is challenging Republican Mike DeWine, voted against reauthorization. On the other hand, Representative Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, who is seeking an open Senate seat, voted with the administration. Cardin faces a number of primary challengers for the Maryland Democratic nomination, including former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who argues that, "Most of all, in our fight against the threat of terror, we must not surrender our essential liberties in the name of preserving liberty."

Vermont Towns Vote to Impeach -- UPDATED

A single Vermont community's call for the impeachment of President Bush turned into a chorus Tuesday night, with town meetings across southern Vermont echoing the demand that Congress act to remove the president.

Voters in the town of Newfane, where the movement began, endorsed impeachment by a resounding margin. The paper ballot vote was 121-29 for a slightly amended version of the resolution that had been submitted by Dan DeWalt, an elected member of the town's select board. DeWalt's initial resolution declared:

Whereas George W. Bush has:

1. Misled the nation about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction;

2. Misled the nation about ties between Iraq and Al Quaeda;

3. Used these falsehoods to lead our nation into war unsupported by international law;

4. Not told the truth about American policy with respect to the use of torture; and

5. Has directed the government to engage in domestic spying, in direct contravention of U.S. law.

Therefore, the voters of the town of Newfane ask that our representative to the U.S. House of Representatives file articles of impeachment to remove him from office.

The key amendment involved the addition of a call for the Vermont House and Senate to take up the issue. Though it is a little-known and even less-used power, state legislatures can officially forward impeachment resolutions to Congress.

The Newfane vote was expected. The surprise on Tuesday night came from neighboring communities where, inspired by Newfane's example, citizens demanded that their town meetings address the issue. At least four other Vermont towns -- Brookfield, Dummerston, Marlboro and Putney – voted for impeachment resolutions Tuesday night. Most of the additional resolutions passed by voice votes, but in Marlboro a show of hands produced a 60-10 vote for impeachment.

DeWalt, the Newfane official who started the process when he drafted an impeachment article and placed it on the official agenda for the annual town meeting, celebrated the grassroots revolt against George Bush and his administration as a healthy sign that democracy is still alive – at least in Vermont.

"In the U.S. presently there are only a few places where citizens can act in this fashion and have a say in our nation,'' explained DeWalt.

U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has been a fierce critic of the Bush administration, responded to the call from the towns with an acknowledgement that Bush "has been a disaster for our country, and a number of actions that he has taken may very well not have been legal." Yet, despite the fact that more than two dozen House members have cosponsored a resolution calling for the establishment of a select committee that would make recommendations regarding impeachment, Sanders said that Republican control of the House and Senate makes it "impractical to talk about impeachment" at this point.

Vermont Republicans and conservative commentators were dismissive, suggesting that town meetings ought to focus on local issues rather than attempts to check and balance executive excess.

But Newfane's DeWalt said impeachment was an appropriate item for town meeting consideration. While he noted that the resolution cited a number of issues, the select board member used the example of the continuing occupation of Iraq. "The war affects us here in Newfane," he said. "It affects us when our mothers and fathers and sons and daughters are sent off to war, and it affects us in our tax dollars to pay for that war."

What, Then, From Newfane?

It is appropriate indeed that the first time voters will be offered an opportunity to weigh in on the question of whether to impeach President George W. Bush for high crimes and misdemeanors is at a New England town meeting in a community chartered two years before the Declaration of Independence was drafted.

After all, in a country founded on the principle that executives -- be they kings or presidents -- must be accountable to the people, patriots have always known that, as George Mason, the father of the Bill of Rights, told the Constitutional Convention of 1787: "No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued. Shall any man be above Justice?"

In Newfane, Vermont, Dan DeWalt, who serves as an elected member of the town's Select Board, has answered that question as Mason intended. "We have an immoral government operating illegally," DeWalt explained, when he proposed that today's annual town meeting vote on articles of impeachment.

DeWalt gathered the necessary signatures to qualify the measure for consideration by the residents of Newfane, who were set to gather today in the southeast Vermont community's 174-year-old Union Hall to consider more than two dozen issues, most of which involve local taxes.

It is Article 29, proposed by DeWalt, that will draw national attention for the first time to the town meetings that have been held each march since 1774 in Newfane.

That article declares:

We the voters of Newfane would like Town Meeting, March 2006, to consider the following resolution:

Whereas George W. Bush has:

1. Misled the nation about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction;

2. Misled the nation about ties between Iraq and Al Quaeda;

3. Used these falsehoods to lead our nation into war unsupported by international law;

4. Not told the truth about American policy with respect to the use of torture; and

5. Has directed the government to engage in domestic spying, in direct contravention of U.S. law.

Therefore, the voters of the town of Newfane ask that our representative to the U.S. House of Representatives file articles of impeachment to remove him from office.

The defenders of the current regime have already ridiculed DeWalt for his audacious proposal, just as they have ridiculed the voters of Newfane for considering it -- and the state of Vermont for being home to so rebellious a community. "Why should the most powerful man in the world worry about what Vermont voters say at a town meeting?" they ask, in mocking tones. "Who do these profaners from Newfane think they are?"

But mockey and condemnation have always been the portion served up to those patriots who dare to challenge the corruptions of empire.

It was not easy to challenge a King George 230.

It is not easy to challenge a King George today.

But even the most conservative of the founders, Gouverneur Morris, told the Constitutional Convention during the debate on impeachment that a president must always be conscious of his secondary role in the scheme of the new Republic.

"This Magistrate is not the King," explained Morris. "The people are the King."

Today, the people of Newfane are King. As such, they are well suited to judge the high crimes and misdemeanors of George Bush, and to propose his prosecution by the authorities who were charged by the founders with the task of checking and balancing the executive branch of governnment and its excesses.

Kate Michelman for Senate?

After Robert Casey, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to challenge vulnerable Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, joined Santorum in backing the Supreme Court nomination of conservative judicial activist Samuel Alito, Kate Michelman was not happy.

After saying she was "sorely disappointed by the lack of commitment to women and fundamental rights by the United State Senate," the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America ripped into Casey and local and national party leaders who back the socially-conservative Pennsylvania Democrat who is an ardent critic of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed women the right to choose.

"As a Pennsylvanian, I am particularly appalled that local and national Democrats would hand our Senate nomination to someone who openly supports giving Roe an Alito-induced death," said Michelman. "Those whose political successes have depended on the ballots and contributions of pro-choice voters but now facilitate the career of someone who would repeal those rights deserve special enmity."

How angry was Michelman?

The veteran activist who has lived for almost three decades in Pennsylvania might just jump into the Senate race herself.

"After Casey announced his support for Alito, I got calls from around the country," says Michelman in a Legal Times article on the fallout from the Alito fight. She tells Legal Times that she has been urged by Democratic donors and feminist groups to run this fall as a pro-choice independent challenger to anti-choice Republican Santorum and anti-choice Democrat Casey.

If she does, it will be a blow not just to Casey but to liberal college professor Chuck Pennacchio, who has had worked hard -- in the face of opposition from most prominent Democrats in Pennsylvania and Washington -- to mount a Democratic primary challenge to Casey.

The filing deadline to enter the May 16 Democratic primary passes on Tuesday. But the filing deadline to run as a third party or independent candidate remains open until August 1. Theoretically, Michelman could wait until Democrats make their choice and then run if Casey is nominated. In reality, however, the prospect of a Michelman run will divert energy -- and potentially resources -- from Pennacchio's already uphill campaign.

Says Pennacchio, "A third party pro-choice candidacy would also divide Pennsylvania Democrats. Since 2000, Al Gore, Ed Rendell, John Kerry, and Arlen Specter have proven that Pennsylvania is a pro-choice state. The best way to defeat Rick Santorum in 2006 is for Democrats to nominate a pro-choice candidate who can and will unite Pennsylvania?s pro-choice majority and make a third party pro-choice candidacy unnecessary. My campaign has established county organizations around the state, and is already uniting Pennsylvanians by fighting for what they want: choice, universal health care, an end to the Iraq War, and other widely held majoritarian views."

But, with expectations high that Casey will be the nominee, the argument for getting started now on an independent candidacy cannot be disregarded altogether. Nor can the prospect that, with sufficient funding and the right breaks, Michelman could be a serious contender.

The classic case of a three-way race for a Senate seat was seen in 1970 in New York State. Both the Republican incumbent, Charles Goodell, and the Democratic challenger, Richard Ottinger, were strong critics of the Vietnam War who embraced generally liberal positions on domestic matters. William F. Buckley's brother, Jim, running on the Conservative Party line, backed the war and steered to the right on social issues. Buckley, whose campaign drew substantial financial support from conservatives around the country and support from many renegade Republicans at the state and national levels, did not win a majority of the vote. But with the major party candidates dividing up the liberal base -- Goodell got 24 percent of the vote, Ottinger 37 percent and Buckley 39 percent -- the outsider who wasn't supposed to stand a chance won the seat.

Ten Against Patriot Act Reauthorization

When Senator Russ Feingold opposed the original version of the Patriot Act in 2001, the Wisconsin Democrat was alone in his defense of the Constitution.

This year, as Feingold led the frustrating fight to block reauthorization of the Patriot Act in a form that continues to threaten basic liberties, he left no doubt that he was entirely willing to stand alone once more. To colleagues who suggested that it was appropriate to trade a little liberty for the White House's promise of more security in the war on terror, the senator declared: "Without freedom, we are not America. If we don't preserve our liberties, we cannot win this war, no matter how many terrorists we capture or kill."

When the key vote came Thursday, Feingold found he was not entirely alone. Along with Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords, eight Democrats joined Feingold in voting "no" to reauthorization. The eight were:

Hawaii's Daniel Akaka

New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman

West Virginia's Robert Byrd

Iowa's Tom Harkin

Vermont's Patrick Leahy

Michigan's Carl Levin

Washington's Patty Murray

Oregon's Ron Wyden.

While Feingold was not on his own this time, the vote was still lopsided -- 89-10 to renew and extend expiring portions of the Patriot Act, with Hawaii Democrat Dan Inouye not voting. Despite earlier talk by many members of both parties about the need to stand firm in defense of basic Constitutional protections, all Republicans and the vast majority of Senate Democrats sided with the Bush White House in favor of legislation that still, among other things, permits an administration with a penchant for warrantless wireatpping to obtain secret orders allowing it to search private records held by libraries, medical clinics, businesses and financial institutions.

The Patriot Act reauthorization also allows government agencies to issue national-security letters, which are for all practical purposes subpoenas, without the approval of the courts.

The increasingly lamentable Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, chirped that, "Our support for the Patriot Act does not mean a blank check for the president."

Reid was, of course, wrong.

One senator who got it right was the dean of the chamber, West Virginia's Byrd, who not only voted against resuthorization but also apologized for failing to join Feingold in 2001 to oppose the Patriot Act in its original form

"There is no doubt that constitutional freedoms will never be abolished in one fell swoop, for the American people cherish their freedoms, and would not tolerate such a loss if they could perceive it," explained Byrd. "But the erosion of freedom rarely comes as an all-out frontal assault but rather as a gradual, noxious creeping, cloaked in secrecy, and glossed over by reassurances of greater security."

Feingold on Patriot Act: "The Fight Is Not Over"

As the U.S. Senate moved Thursday to reauthorize the Patriot Act in a form that fails to address essential concerns about the protection of civil liberties, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, the chamber's most ardent critic of reauthorization along the lines demanded by the Bush administration, admitted temporary defeat. But, in final remarks to his colleagues on the eve of the vote, Feingold declared, "This fight is not over Mr. President. The vote today will not assuage the deep and legitimate concerns that the public has about the Patriot Act. I am convinced that in the end, the government will respond to the people, as it should. We will defeat the terrorists, and we will preserve the freedom and liberty that make this the greatest country on the face of the earth."

Here is the text of the speech Feingold -- the only senator to oppose the initial version of the Patriot Act in 2001 and one of the few to consistently oppose it throughout the reauthorization process -- prepared for delivery to the Senate:

Mr. President, in a few minutes, the Senate will conclude a process that began over a year ago by reauthorizing the Patriot Act. I will have a few closing remarks but first I want to take this opportunity to thank the extraordinary staff who have worked on this bill for so long. These men and women, on both sides of the aisle, have worked extremely hard and they deserve to be recognized. I ask unanimous consent that a list of their names be printed in the Record after my remarks.

Mr. President, beginning in November when we first saw a draft of the conference report, I have spoken at length about the substance of this bill. I hoped that when we started the task of reauthorizing the Patriot Act at the beginning of last year, the end product would be something that the whole Senate could support. We had a real chance to pass a bill that would both reauthorize the tools to prevent terrorism and fix the provisions that threaten the rights and freedoms of innocent Americans. This conference report, even as amended by the bill incorporating the White House deal that we passed yesterday, falls well short of that goal. I will vote no.

Protecting the country from terrorism while also protecting our rights is a challenge for every one of us, particularly in the current political climate, and it is a challenge we all take seriously. I know that many Senators who will vote for this reauthorization bill in a few minutes would have preferred to enact the bill we passed without a single objection in July of last year. I appreciate that so many of my colleagues came to recognize the need to take the opportunity presented by the sunset provisions included in the original Patriot Act to make changes that would better protect civil liberties than did the law we enacted in haste in October 2001.

Nevertheless, I am deeply disappointed that we have largely wasted this opportunity to fix the obvious problems with the Patriot Act.

The reason I spent so much time in the past few days talking about how the public views the Patriot Act was to make it clear that this fight was not about one Senator arguing the details of the law. This fight was about trying to restore the public's trust in our government. That trust has been severely shaken as the public learned more about the Patriot Act, which was passed with so little debate in 2001, and as the administration resisted congressional oversight efforts and repeatedly politicized the reauthorization process. The revelations about secret warrantless surveillance late last year only confirmed the suspicions of many in our country that the government is willing to trample the rule of law and constitutional guarantees in the fight against terrorism.

The negative reaction to the Patriot Act has been overwhelming. Over 400 state and local government bodies passed resolutions pleading with Congress to change the law. Citizens have signed petitions, library associations and campus groups have organized to petition the Congress to act, numerous editorials have been written urging Congress not to reauthorize the law without adequate protections for civil liberties. These things occurred because Americans across the country recognize that the Patriot Act includes provisions that pose a threat to their privacy and liberty -- values that are at the very core of what this country represents, of who we are as a people.

In 2001, we were viciously attacked by terrorists who care nothing for American freedoms and American values. And we as a people came together to fight back, and we are prepared to make great sacrifices to defeat those who would destroy us. But what we will not do, what we cannot do, is destroy our own freedoms in the process.

Without freedom, we are not America. If we don't preserve our liberties, we cannot win this war, no matter how many terrorists we capture or kill.

That is why the several Senators who have said at one time or another during this debate things like, "Civil liberties do not mean much when you are dead" are wrong about America at the most basic level. They do not understand what this country is all about. Theirs is a vision that the founders of this nation, who risked everything for freedom, would categorically reject. And so do the American people.

Americans want to defeat terrorism, and they want the basic character of this country to survive and prosper. They want to empower the government to protect the nation from terrorists, and they want protections against government overreaching and overreacting. They know it might not be easy, but they expect the Congress to figure out how to do it. They don't want defeatism on either score. They want both security and liberty, and unless we give them both – and we can, if we try – we have failed.

This fight is not over Mr. President. The vote today will not assuage the deep and legitimate concerns that the public has about the Patriot Act. I am convinced that in the end, the government will respond to the people, as it should. We will defeat the terrorists, and we will preserve the freedom and liberty that make this the greatest country on the face of the earth.

I yield the floor.

SF's For Impeachment, But Not Nancy Pelosi

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors is not the first local government body to pass a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, nor will it be the last.

But because San Francisco is one of America's best-known and best-loved cities --unless you're Fox News bloviator Bill O'Reilly, who last fall went on air to suggest landmarks there that terrorists might want to strike -- the news has drawn wider attention to the burgeoning movement for impeachment. It has also exposed another embarrassing rift between top Democrats and grassroots party activists and elected officials around the country.

Tuesday's 7-3 vote by San Francisco's Board of Supervisors for Democratic Supervisor Chris Daly's resolution urging California's Congressional representatives to pursue impeachment pushed no new limits. The bill of particulars discussed by Daly and other supervisors echoed concerns raised by U.S. Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and the 26 House members currently cosponsoring Conyers' call for creation of a select committee to investigate administration preparations for war with Iraq before obtaining congressional authorization, manipulation of pre-war intelligence, encouragement and countenancing of torture, and retaliation against critics. That committee would be charged with, among other things, making recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment.

While a number of Bay Area representatives are among the cosponsors of the Conyers resolution -- including Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey -- the most powerful member of the House from region, and the primary representative of the city of San Francisco, is not on board. Indeed, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi seems to be almost as frightened by the word "impeachment" as the right-wing talk radio hosts who doth protest too much whenever it is mentioned.

Pelosi was confronted at a January town hall meeting in San Francisco by constituents who detailed administration misdeeds and chanted: "Impeach! Impeach!" Her response, according to a San Francisco Bay Guardian report, was initially a political one: "For those of you concerned about these issues, I urge you to channel your energies into the 2006 elections," she told the crowd.

Pressed on whether she would join senior Democrats in the California delegation -- such as Pete Stark and Maxine Waters -- in backing the House resolution to investigate matters related to impeachment, Pelosi answered that, "I do not intend to support Mr. Conyers's resolution."

Seeking to quiet the ensuing chorus of boos, Pelosi said, "We have a responsibility to try to bring this country together." According to Guardian report, one of the San Franciscans in the audience shouted back, "You have a responsibility to uphold the Constitution!"

That response is no longer just a shout from the crowd. It has been endorsed by the board of supervisors of the city Pelosi supposedly represents.

Support the Troops? Start by Listening to Them

According to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, a new poll shows that 72 percent of U.S. troops serving in Iraq favor complete withdrawal from that country within a year.

Despite the claims of the armchair strategists in the White House and its amen corner in the media, who suggest that calls for withdrawal represent a failure to "support the troops," the troops themselves are ready to come home.

Only 23 percent of the soldiers surveyed in January and February for the Zogby International/Le Moyne College poll echoed the administration line that the U.S. presence in Iraq should be maintained for "as long as needed."

According to the pollster's analysis, there is remarkably broad support among the troops for immediate withdrawal.

"Of the 72 percent (who support withdrawal), 22 percent said troops should leave within the next six months, and 29 percent said they should withdraw 'immediately.' Twenty-one percent said the US military presence should end within a year," according to Zogby's review of the results of the survey, which was conducted before the recent explosive of sectarian violence in Iraq.

Around the country this spring, opponents of the war are promoting local resolutions and referendums -- particularly in Wisconsin, where more than two dozen measures will be on April 4 local election ballots in cities, villages and towns around the state -- that are intended to give citizens an opportunity to call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Critics of these initiatives suggest that it is unpatriotic and anti-military to talk about bringing the troops home. They don't like the idea of letting citizens play a role in establishing foreign policy priorities.

There are plenty of appropriate responses to this anti-democratic tendency on the part of those who are more loyal to George Bush and Dick Cheney than they are to their country's Constitution and its best political traditions -- beginning with: "When we fought that revolution back in 1776, your position lost."

But the best response of all might well be to say: If you really want to support the troops -- as opposed to the Bush-Cheney administration's warped policies -- why not listen to the troops? Indeed, why not let them vote in an advisory referendum of their own on whether they think the occupation of Iraq should continue?

Of course, the administration's apologists -- along with many more pragmatic players -- would respond to such a proposal with all the reasons why it is dangerous and unwise to treat the military as a democracy.

But if citizens are not supposed to advocate for withdrawal because doing so represents a failure to "support the troops," and if the troops who want to withdraw are not allowed to weigh in for all the practical reasons that might be cited, then what are we left with? No debate. No democracy. And no chance to set right what this administration and its neoconservative gurus have put wrong.

Ultimately, that's a fine scenario for George Bush and Dick Cheney, but its the wrong one for citizens at home and troops abroad. The right one is to recognize that, when citizens advocate, petition and vote for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq they are supporting the troops.

Clinic Clash : Right to Protest v. Right to Choose

Ruling on an issue that had divided progressive groups for the better part of two decades, the Supreme Court on Tuesday issued an 8-0 decision that federal extortion and racketeering laws cannot be used to ban demonstrations outside abortion clinics.

The decision is being portrayed as a victory for anti-choice groups such as Operation Rescue and the Pro-Life Action Network. That is surely the case, as the court has conclusively rejected arguments for an on-and-off nationwide injunction that had been used to prevent anti-abortion groups from protesting outside clinics in a manner that, by all reasonable evidence, was intended to prevent the clinics from operating.

Effectively, the high court has rejected arguments, formulated by lawyers for the National Organization for Women in the 1980s, that civil provisions of the 1970 Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which was adopted as a tool to combat organized crime, and the Hobbs Act, an older anti-extortion measure, could be used to bar protests by groups that clearly intend to prevent clinics from operating.

But from the beginning of the long fight over clinic protests, some progressive groups have argued that, even if the anti-choice organizations involved were noxious players, broader issues of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly were also in play.

It is for that reason that the AFL-CIO, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the position of the anti-choice groups, will see itself as having secured a sort of victory with this particular court ruling. While they disagree officially, and often passionately, with the anti-choice groups on fights over court nominations and other issues, labor organizations weighed in on the side of the clinic protesters because of honest fears that lawsuits and injunctions based on a broad interpretation of racketeering and extortion laws could be used to undermine strikes, anti-sweatshop protests and similar agitations on behalf of social and economic justice that target businesses.

Bob Blakey, a former Congressional aide who drafted the RICO Act has argued that its use in litigation against anti-choice groups "will unconstitutionally chill social protest." Many anti-choice activists have cynically echoed Blakey's line, while conveniently failing to stand up for the rights of labor, environmental and anti-war groups to engage in protests of the sort they defend.

NOW President Kim Gandy countered Blakey's argument by writing that, "As a national officer of NOW, I know that the National Organization for Women has a strong interest in preserving free expression. As former counsel in this case, I know that we have been scrupulous in addressing issues of violence, not speech or peaceful demonstrations.

"NOW's marches, informational pickets and sidewalk demonstrations are effective and legal. Anti-abortion activists have the same right to distribute pamphlets and display signs and make their voices heard. But no group has a right to use violence or threats of violence to force others to give up their constitutional rights.

"Racketeering is not free speech. Marching in front of a clinic, carrying signs and distributing literature is free speech. When that picket becomes a brutal blockade . . . when those signs are used as weapons . . . when prayers change to overt threats . . . then the "protest" has crossed the line into violence and lawlessness, and has left the First Amendment behind."

But that line of reasoning did not convince the AFL-CIO, which historically has eschewed taking an official stand on abortion rights but has worked closely with pro-choice organizations such as Emily's List in recent years, and AFL affiliate unions and groups -- some of which, such as the Coalition or Labor Union Women, are ardently pro-choice. The AFL's lawyers argued against the broad interpretation of racketeering and extortion laws, on the grounds that unions could be targeted by similar civil suits in efforts by corporations to restrict pickets by labor unions.

Justice Stephen Breyer picked up on the AFL's arguments. Noting that there is a specific federal law that bars the use of force, threats or blockades to interfere with access to reproductive health care -- the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act -- the justice suggested at one point during the long deliberations on these issues that allowing the use of racketeering and extortion laws to restrict protests would "transform virtually every threat of violence anywhere in the United States into a serious federal crime."

To Breyer's view, that would "make a major change in (how) threats of violence (are handled) on the picket line."

The Supreme Court's ruling will not eliminate differences of opinion on where exactly protests enter into the space where they have "left the First Amendment behind." But the unanimous ruling would appear to put an end to the practical legal debate, as the broad interpretation of these laws has been broadly rejected.

In matters of this kind, it is usually best to err on the side of dissent and dissenters. NOW made a credible argument for an exception, but the AFL and other groups made what many considered toi be an equally credible argument that a good exception could become a bad rule. The legal fight, for all intents and purposes, is now done. Unfortunately, with the recent appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the high court and with the move by South Dakota legislators to effectively ban abortion in that state, the national political fight over reproductive rights is heating up. And it is certainly reasonable to suggest that labor organizations, which split with pro-choice groups in the battle over clinic access, citing concerns about protecting the right to protest, have a greater responsibility than ever to work with those pro-choice groups to defend another endangered right -- that of women to make the most fundamental of all choices.

BMD (Bike of Mass Destruction)

Today's question: What's more dangerous -- hunting with Dick Cheney or bike riding with George Bush?

For background, we offer this report from Murdo MacLeod, the able political correspondent for Edinburgh's Scotland on Sunday newspaper:

US LEADER CRASHED BY TRYING TO 'PEDAL, WAVE AND SPEAK AT THE SAME TIME'

He may be the most powerful man in the world, but proof has emerged that President George Bush cannot ride a bike, wave and speak at the same time.

Scotland on Sunday has obtained remarkable details of one of the most memorably bizarre episodes of the Bush presidency: the day he crashed into a Scottish police constable while cycling in the grounds of Gleneagles Hotel.

The incident, which will do little to improve Bush's accident-prone reputation, began when he took to two wheels for a spot of early-evening exercise during last year's G8 summit at the Perthshire resort.

After a hard day's discussion with fellow world leaders, the president was looking for some relaxation. Instead, he ended up the subject of a police report in which the leader of the free world was described, in classic police language, as a "moving/falling object".

It was "about 1800 hours on Wednesday, 6 July, 2005" that a detachment of Strathclyde police constables, in "Level 2 public order dress [anti-riot gear]," formed a protective line at the gate at the hotel's rear entrance, in case demonstrators penetrated the biggest-ever security operation on Scottish soil.

The official police incident report states: "[The unit] was requested to cover the road junction on the Auchterarder to Braco Road as the President of the USA, George Bush, was cycling through." The report goes on: "[At] about 1800 hours the President approached the junction at speed on the bicycle. The road was damp at the time. As the President passed the junction at speed he raised his left arm from the handlebars to wave to the police officers present while shouting 'thanks, you guys, for coming'.

"As he did this he lost control of the cycle, falling to the ground, causing both himself and his bicycle to strike [the officer] on the lower legs. [The officer] fell to the ground, striking his head. The President continued along the ground for approximately five metres, causing himself a number of abrasions. The officers... then assisted both injured parties."

The injured officer, who was not named, was whisked to Perth Royal Infirmary. The report adds: "While en-route President Bush phoned [the officer], enquiring after his wellbeing and apologising for the accident."

At hospital, a doctor examined the constable and diagnosed damage to his ankle ligaments and issued him with crutches. The cause was officially recorded as: "Hit by moving/falling object."

No details of damage to the President are recorded from his close encounter with the policeman and the road, although later reports said he had been "bandaged" by a White House physician after suffering scrapes on his hands and arms.

At the time Bush laughed off the incident, saying he should start "acting his age".

Details of precisely how the crash unfolded have until now been kept under wraps for fear of embarrassing both Bush and the injured constable. But the new disclosures are certain to raise eyebrows on Washington's Capitol Hill.

Jim McDermott, a Democrat Congressman, last night quipped: "Not only does he break the law over here on eavesdropping and spying on our own citizens, but it seems he can't even keep to your law when it comes to riding a bike. It's another example of how he can't keep his mind on the things he should be thinking about."

Bush often takes to two wheels for exercise, after pain in his knees forced him to give up running. He regularly rides at secret service training facilities near Washington, and the G8 accident is just one in a long list of mishaps. In May 2004, he fell off his mountain bike, grazing his chin, upper lip, nose, both knees, and his right hand, while riding on his ranch in Texas. In June 2003, he fell off his hi-tech Segway scooter.

In Scotland, an accident such as the one at Gleneagles could have led to police action. Earlier this year, Strathclyde Police issued three fixed penalty notices to errant cyclists as part of a crack-down on rogue riders. Legal experts also suggested lesser mortals could have ended up with a fixed penalty fine, prosecution, or at least a good ticking-off from officers.

John Scott, a human rights lawyer, said: "There's certainly enough in this account for a charge of careless driving. Anyone else would have been warned for dangerous driving.

"I have had clients who have been charged with assaulting a police officer for less than this. The issue of how long the police officer was out of action for is also important. He was away from work for 14 weeks, and that would normally be very significant in a case like this."

No-one was available for comment from the White House.

Mr. MacLeod's only error was to contact the White House. For an official response to an incident of this sort, he should have called the woman who owns the Armstrong Ranch in Texas. Notably, she got the story out within 24 hours. This tale of executive excess did not come to light for six months. Still, considering recent developments, the timing could not be better to set Bush and Cheney up for the great bikes vs. bullets debate.

Syndicate content