Speaker warns civil liberties are under attack

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November 18, 2010

11:46 PM

According to Stephen Wermiel, American civil liberties are under attack.

Wermiel, a fellow in Law and Government and Associate Director of the Summer Institute on Law and Government at American University Washington College of Law, addressed 14 law students at the William and Mary Law School Wednesday as the guest speaker for the Human Security Law Society Speaker Series and focused on the erosion of civil liberties as a result of the American war on terror.

In his discussion, Wermiel said that American citizens should realize they are in the midst of a civil liberties crisis due to national security concerns.

“Security is a knee-jerk reaction, [but] the government should not be so quick to jump to taking away civil liberties,” he said. “The post 9-11 society is a more dangerous one for civil liberties because there are no high profile public issues, creating obscurity and a greater possibility that government actions will be overblown and factually unfounded.”

Wermiel cited several national security measures in particular that may cause concern for citizen’s rights, including National Security Letters under the Patriot Act, which allow the FBI to send secret letters to businesses or organizations demanding information about a person.

“If you’ve never heard about this, you’re not supposed to,” Wermiel said. “The recipients of the letter are prohibited from acknowledging the letter. This raises privacy and free speech issues.”

A second example dealt with Holder v. Humanitarian Law, a statute preventing any organization from communicating with or advocating for a terrorist organization blacklisted by the U.S. Department of State. This includes providing expert advice.

“This [statute] is troubling on a free speech level,” Wermiel said. “It is of great concern because it means that the government can put these groups on a blacklist and no one can talk to them again. Any organization that wanted to help advocate or teach these groups about dispute resolution or international law can’t. There is also the tricky situation for those who advocate the group’s cause, just not their means of doing so.”

Wermiel then cited examples of religious intolerance breeding violations of civil liberties, stressing the existence of cases beyond the much-covered ground zero mosque.

“It should be in the interest of our alleged free country that vast Muslim employee discrimination, protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Constitution, is happening,” Wermiel said. “We are repeating the same mistakes we did when we rounded up the Japanese in internment camps. Muslims with immigration issues are being rounded up and put through secret deportation hearings. We have to take the government’s word on the evidence against these people.”

Wermiel then quoted a fellow lawyer’s opinion on civil liberty concerns.

“Democracy dies behind closed doors,” Wermiel said.

In the future, Wermiel said he hopes law schools continue discussions on civil liberties and that the press maintains coverage, regardless of the presence of new developments.

“The period when there are no headlines is when we are in a civil liberties crisis,” he said.

Wermiel referenced U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan as an admirable champion for civil liberties, remarking that, even though his death in 1997 preceded the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, his lessons are still relevant in post Sept. 11 society.

“It may come as no surprise that I am a free speech advocate,” Wermiel said. “I am not an advocate for promoting terrorist activities. We as a country are not paying enough attention to what these national security measures mean.”

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