By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: civil liberties

Mass. teachers join the national surveillance state

Photo via Wikimedia Commons (click here for info)

Teachers in Massachusetts must now submit to being fingerprinted. And another part of our liberties just died.

This happened so quickly and quietly that I had no idea it was in the works until I read a small Associated Press item in the Boston Globe this morning. Googling revealed a detailed story published by Patch. The new law, signed on Thursday by Gov. Deval Patrick, pertains to everyone who works at schools and child-care centers. As this press release from the governor’s office makes clear, the law applies to private-school teachers as well.

Please read this sentence twice: The information would be forwarded to the State Police and from there make its way to the FBI.

It’s always easy to defend such measures as being in the best interests of kids. And if you’ve got nothing to hide, why should you care?

Let me offer a hypothetical. A teacher’s fingerprints could turn up in an investigation that has nothing to do with kids. That teacher will then be hauled in the police for reasons that have nothing to do with why the fingerprints were submitted in the first place — putting teachers at greater legal jeopardy than those of us whose fingerprints are not on file.

In effect, teachers are becoming part of the national surveillance state as the price of being employed. Taken in isolation, maybe it’s not a big deal. Several other states, including New York, already fingerprint teachers. But it chips away at our freedom, and it’s too bad Patrick decided to pander rather than use his veto pen.

Fighting back against dubious prosecutions

In my latest for the Guardian, I examine friend of Media Nation Harvey Silverglate‘s new book, “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.” And I point out that the themes Silverglate explores can be seen in some dubious prosecutions of recent vintage — including that of former Massachusetts House speaker Sal DiMasi, now fighting for the right to be represented by the lawyer of his choice.

William Safire, civil libertarian

William Safire

William Safire

Former New York Times columnist William Safire, who died on Sunday at 79, brought three great passions to his work: a love of the English language; a devotion to dogged reporting; and an abiding commitment to civil liberties.

It was that last quality that brought Safire, a conservative who’d worked as a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, into frequent conflict with the Republican Party — though, as he was quick to point out, the Democrats have frequently been no prize when it comes to civil liberties, either.

I did a bit of digging this morning and came up with a few examples of Safire on civil liberties. Enjoy.

On George H.W. Bush’s campaign against Michael Dukakis:

George Bush, now that he’s ahead, is adopting a Flying Rose Garden strategy, ducking interviews. Worse, his campaign has been taking cheap shots at the American Civil Liberties Union, which leads me to believe he would extend the intrusive “lie-detector” mania to enshrine secrecy — the most offensive legacy of the Reagan Administration. (Sept. 12, 1988)

On the Reagan administration’s contempt for governmental openness:

The Freedom of Information Act is a blessing for those who value a check on Government snooping. Individuals can now find out what the F.B.I. file says about them. Even better, individuals can force the Federal bureaucracy to disgorge rulings made without public scrutiny, and documents more politically embarrassing than secret.

Mr. Reagan’s Attorney General evidently finds the Freedom of Information Act an annoyance. He has reversed the policy supporting F.O.I.A. followed by Carter Attorney General Griffin Bell, and now the Justice Department intends to help bureaucrats who wish to hide their dealings from taxpayers. (Mr. Bell is looking better every day.) (May 25, 1981)

On FBI Director Louis Freeh’s post-Oklahoma City plan to spy on suspected domestic terrorists:

I think the ever-popular Director Freeh — dutifully following the lead of President Clinton in politically exploiting the public’s rage at bombers — is proposing a bureaucratic subversion of our civil liberties….

To the applause of voters fearful of terrorism, the proactivists declare their intent to prevent crime. This would be followed by surveillance of suspect groups by new technology; the infiltration of political movements deemed radical or violence-prone; and the stretching of the guidelines put in place 20 years ago to restrain yesterday’s zealots. (May 8, 1995)

On an investigation of then-California congressman Gary Condit, thought by some to be involved in the disappearance of his intern Chanda Levy:

Now, in the spotlight of pitiless publicity, the police are overreacting in the other direction. Yesterday’s heavily covered search of Condit’s condo, at his invitation, was a stunt to show activity rather than a search for evidence. The “lie detector” test, requested by the Levy family, will be worse than a stunt — it is a civil-liberties abomination. Condit is “not a suspect,” the police keep saying, but even the unaccused have rights. (July 12, 2001)

On the difference between Democrats and Republicans:

Democratic liberals are fine on civil liberties, standing up against random drug and polygraph tests — but where are they when you need them to defend freedom in Central America? Republican conservatives are dandy at cutting Federal spending, but why do they think they can flutter me as a condition of employment or coerce my kid to pray in school? (April 16, 1987)

On the post-9/11 agenda of John Poindexter, convicted of criminal wrongdoing in the Iran-contra scandal of the 1980s, who had emerged as a top adviser to then-president George W. Bush:

This ring-knocking master of deceit is back again with a plan even more scandalous than Iran-contra…. Poindexter is now realizing his 20-year dream: getting the “data-mining” power to snoop on every public and private act of every American.

Even the hastily passed U.S.A. Patriot Act, which widened the scope of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and weakened 15 privacy laws, raised requirements for the government to report secret eavesdropping to Congress and the courts. But Poindexter’s assault on individual privacy rides roughshod over such oversight. (Nov. 14, 2002)

With President Obama proving to be something of a disappointment on civil liberties and governmental openness, it’s a shame that Safire’s voice has been silenced.

Harvey Silverglate goes after the feds

Harvey Silverglate at the Harvard Book Store. (Click on photo for a larger image.)

Harvey Silverglate at the Harvard Book Store. (Click on photo for a larger image.)

Friend of Media Nation Harvey Silverglate packed the house at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge last night at an event for his new book, “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.”

The book is about what Silverglate describes as an increasing tendency by prosecutors to abuse their discretion by charging people with crimes they didn’t even know they’d committed. A noted civil-liberties lawyer, Silverglate described most of his clients as people “who committed the act but committed no crime.”

Since the mid-1980s, Silverglate said, the criminal-justice system has abandoned the ancient principle that there can’t be a crime without criminal intent. Referring to cases in which law enforcement has withheld important information, he said, “There’s something wrong with a system that knows there’s evidence of innocence and hides it.”

And he described prosecutors as “kidnappers and extortionists” for threatening targets with lengthy prison sentences and then demanding that they testify against others as the price of having those sentences reduced. Such testimony is notoriously unreliable, he said, quoting Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz (who wrote the preface) as saying that such witnesses are taught not just to “sing,” but also to “compose.”

Harvey and I go back many years at the Boston Phoenix, where I had the privilege of editing his column, and where we later collaborated on several articles. Harvey also was the inspiration behind the Phoenix’s annual Muzzle Awards, which I’ve been cranking out, with his help, for 12 years.

Last night the Phoenix newspapers’ executive editor, Peter Kadzis, and the Boston Phoenix’s editor, Lance Gould, were both on hand, as was Harvey’s wife, the photographer Elsa Dorfman, whose work has appeared in the Phoenix. “Three Felonies” was edited by Catherine Tumber, a former Phoenix editor who’s now working on a book about the significance of small cities.

Kadzis interviews Silverglate about “Three Felonies” in this week’s Phoenix. Kadzis writes:

At this curious moment in history, Silverglate’s book might not shock either the left or the right. For some time now, the two opposing wings of the American centrist polity have been alarmed by the predatory nature of our national government. For those in the middle of the political spectrum, however, Silverglate’s book should be a bracing wake-up call. Liberty and freedom are being compromised, one prosecution at a time.

Indeed, it’s Silverglate’s advocacy for such notorious bad guys as the financier Michael Milken and the accounting firm Arthur Andersen that takes “Three Felonies” out of the realm of political polemics and transforms it into an important book.

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