Cities Urge Restraint in Fight Against Terror
FLAGSTAFF (Reuters / December 20, 2002) - Nearly two dozen cities around
the country have passed resolutions urging federal authorities to respect
the civil rights of local citizens when fighting terrorism. Efforts to
pass similar measures are under way in more than 60 other places.
Most of the resolutions have passed in liberal bastions like Boulder,
Colo.; Santa Fe, N.M.; Cambridge, Mass.; and Berkeley, Calif., where
opposition to government policy is a tradition. But less ideological
places have also acted, with more localities considering it, from big
cities like Chicago and Tampa, Fla., to smaller ones like Fairbanks,
Alaska, and Grants Pass, Ore.
Many communities are getting help from the American Civil Liberties
Union and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a grass-roots group in
"People are very, very willing and committed to do everything reasonably
possible about terrorist threats," said Elliot Mincberg, legal director
of People for the American Way, a nonprofit group that works for constitutional
protections. "But there is a growing concern about the executive
branch is handling this, a unilateral assertion of power that, in many
instances, intrudes on people's privacy and is carried out in a very
Art Babbott, the City Council member who sponsored the resolution in
Flagstaff that passed last week after intense debate, said: "We've
been singing the same song in this country for more than 200 years. It's
a very good song, and I want to keep singing it. I'm very leery of changing
Supporters of the resolutions say the measures have grown out of a belief
that the Patriot Act of 2001, the Homeland Security Act passed this year
and a series of executive orders have given the federal government too
much muscle in its war against terrorism at the expense of average Americans,
especially Muslims. The 2001 act expands government powers in such matters
as electronic surveillance, search warrants and detention.
The Homeland Security Act created a cabinet department for national
In most places, the resolutions carry no legal weight, merely affirming
the civil rights as federal authorities intensify antiterrorist efforts
in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But resolutions passed by some towns like Amherst, Mass., have a sharper
tone, going so far as to direct city personnel not to help federal or
state officials in activities that could be considered in violation of
civil rights or liberties.
The Amherst measure, for example, says, "to the extent legally
possible, no town employee shall officially assist or voluntarily cooperate
with investigations, interrogations or arrest procedures" that may
be judged to violate civil rights or liberties.
The Flagstaff measure, which passed with a City Council vote of 4 to
3, includes a part written so ambiguously that members on each side of
the issue said it could give the police department and other city departments
a legal basis to delay or even withhold cooperation with higher authorities
investigating a terrorist threat or suspicious person. To the four council
members who support the measure, that is a good thing.
The three who opposed it predicted that it could have dangerous consequences.
Nancy Talanian, co-director of the Florence group, said conflicts between
local and federal authorities had not emerged. However, in Amherst, faculty
members at the University of Massachusetts recently protested the Federal
Bureau of Investigation's questioning of Musaddak J. Alhabeeb, an Iraqi-born
associate professor of economics, over his views of the Bush administration's
plans for war against Iraq.
But no conflicts over the new laws should arise, said Mark Corallo,
a spokesman for the Justice Department, insisting that they are constitutional.
"We are still living under the Constitution," Mr. Corallo
said, asserting that protection of civil liberties is built into all
antiterrorism legislation. "We would have it no other way. Everything
we do, particularly in the realm of surveillance, we do with the authority
and supervision of courts."
The resolutions already adopted, including another passed last week,
in Oakland, Calif., are alike in many ways, reflecting a common fear
of government aggression in such areas as wiretaps, search warrants and
immigration policy. The resolution passed by the board of commissioners
of Alachua County, Fla., among others, warns that "civil liberties
are precious and may now be threatened" by the government's new
The Boulder City Council resolution "affirms that any efforts to
end terrorism not be waged at the expense of essential civil rights and
liberties of the people of Boulder, the United States and the World."
The aldermen of Carrboro, N.C., took a slightly stronger position, with
a resolution that requires any visiting federal agents to "work
in accordance with the policies and procedures of the Carrboro Police
Department and in cooperation with the department."
Efforts in some cities to pass resolutions with stronger language were
thwarted by legal advisers who argued that requiring federal authorities
to comply with municipal standards would create problems. An early version
of the measure passed in Santa Cruz, Calif., sounded much the same as
Amherst's but was softened at the urging of the city attorney.
"We didn't want to put our police officers in an untenable position," said
Mayor Emily Reilly of Santa Cruz.
The same kind of tug of war occurred in Flagstaff, where Mr. Babbott,
the resolution sponsor, argued for the kind of language in the Carrboro
measure. It was eliminated from the final version after objections from
Flagstaff's mayor, Joseph C. Donaldson, and a complaint from the police
chief, J. T. McCann, who said the language "thrusts the department
into an unenforceable partisan role that is adverse not only to our mission
but our long-term partnerships" with other law enforcement agencies.
The final version omitted any reference to the police department but
remained strong enough that Mr. Babbott said it would cause local police
officers "to think very hard" about any federal requests for
assistance that might tread upon citizens' civil liberties.
Mayor Donaldson interpreted the resolution the same way but said any
hesitation could hurt the campaign to root out terrorism.
"This creates an environment for misunderstanding and procrastination," he
said, adding that the resolution would ultimately have no influence on
any visiting federal agents. "When the president came here before
the election, his security people didn't pick up a book to read city
policies and procedures," he said. "That's just not going to
Meanwhile, council members on both sides of the issue said they had
been barraged with criticism through e-mail messages, telephone calls
and encounters on the street.
Joe Haughey, a councilman who opposed the resolution, said opponents
have told him the resolution "serves as an invitation" for
terrorists to come to Flagstaff. Kara Kelty, a councilwoman who voted
in favor of the measure, said one telephone caller who opposed her view
called her "a bimbo" for supporting it.
But, she said, she felt she voted the right way.
"I'm proud of my community," she said. "Civil liberties,
the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are dear to us.
I didn't want to do anything to alter that."