Town hall participants: Freedoms have taken hit in wake of terror attacks

Thursday, January 3, 2002

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, many First Amendment freedoms have been compromised. That was the consensus of participants of a recent Newseum town hall meeting discussing the impact of new national security measures on civil liberties.

Freedom Forum First Amendment ombudsman Paul McMasters said that librarians, college professors, entertainers and others have been unfairly targeted for what some Americans considered to be unpatriotic speech.

“That is a betrayal and a denial of who we are,” McMasters said at the town hall meeting Dec. 11.

“If indeed we hold close and precious the freedoms that we said were being attacked, then how can we disavow them when somebody didn’t say what they ought to say… . I’m from the school that says anybody who exercises their First Amendment rights are being patriots.”

The program was a co-production of the Newseum and Robinson Secondary School’s DECA chapter. DECA is a student marketing association.

Bob Garfield, a columnist for Advertising Age magazine, said that the expanded powers given to law enforcement have shaken the democratic foundation on which the country was established.

Garfield said: “On the one hand, the president is saying … these acts were committed by individuals and it was not committed by Islam …and the Arab world, … but … it’s the government that has taken more than a thousand people into custody without giving us their names, without naming any charges … and essentially overriding habeas corpus, one of the fundamental rights of the accused in this country.”

Journalists trying to report on these secret detentions have faced many hurdles. The biggest one, said Gail Russell Chaddock of The Christian Science Monitor, has been getting government officials to provide the names and locations of the detainees so they can be interviewed by the news media.

“If you don’t have a story, you might think the people that are being held are either terrorists or friends of terrorists, and one of the main good functions that the press can provide is letting you know whether your government is effective,” Chaddock said. “Are we just rounding up anybody who’s come from a handful of countries lately, anybody whose accent is funny? … That’s the kind of question that the press can help you answer.”

Another challenge the press is facing is covering military operations and foreign policy without seeming unpatriotic or compromising national security. McMasters said that immediately after Sept. 11 the press engaged in self-censorship given the raw emotions and shock the American public was feeling.

But he said, even in times of crisis, it’s the media’s job to ask the tough questions that need to be asked.

“Right now a great amount of the information coming to the American people is from briefings provided by Pentagon officials, ” he said. “We need to have that… . We also have to have that put in context by a credible independent source of information — that is the constitutional role of the media.”

Garfield underscored the importance of the news media’s role as government watchdogs.

“We’re in effect the 4th branch of government as yet another check and balance to make sure that not necessarily this government but some government doesn’t abuse its power over the people,” he said.

Garfield also criticized the major television networks for having shown “very little of the outrage that you’d come to expect when people’s basic liberties as an American are being arbitrarily taken away by the government.”

But other media observers said that news outlets have done a good job of reporting certain abuses, such as the violence targeted at Muslims, Arabs and other non-Americans after the terror attacks.

“Another aspect of the media performance that ought to be mentioned and commended is the positive role this time by the media in reacting to hate crimes around the country,” said Khalil Jahshan, vice president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

“In the past the media … engaged in speculation, and they ended up enriching the hate,” he said. “This time the media took a much more principled stand, and they went after the perpetrators of these crimes.”

Jahshan also spoke about how people of Middle Eastern background like himself had been singled out by law enforcement.

“The people who engaged in the vicious attacks on September 11 were of Arab background or Muslim background, so we can’t start with Italians, we can’t start with Polish, … but the problem … we have with airport security is the fact that a lot of these measures … have been left to the discretion of the pilot or the crew or the passengers,” he said.

Several polls taken since Sept. 11 indicate that most Americans support new government measures to investigate and prosecute suspected terrorists even if those measures violate the rights of U.S. citizens or others.

McMasters said the willingness of Americans to place national security above civil liberties sets a dangerous precedent.

“We are saying to ourselves ‘we are so afraid, and I don’t want anything to happen like September 11 again, I’ll give away a little bit of my civil liberties,’ ” he said. “Well, what you’re saying is ‘I’ll give away somebody else’s civil liberties.’ You’re not thinking in terms of yourself.

“The presumption there is that these people are guilty and therefore not deserving of any civil liberties. We don’t know that… . If that can happen to anybody else, we should be able to imagine it can happen to us or to somebody we know.”

The town hall participants also urged Americans to be cautious of the Justice Department’s broad new authority to tap into e-mail and phone conversations, and to keep the media’s feet to the fire to report any abuses of First Amendment freedoms.

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