ACLU works to defeat hasty USA Patriot Act

Published 9:29 pm Monday, November 17, 2003

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
DOWAGIAC -- If James N. Rodbard holds his friends close, he holds his enemies even closer.
The Kalamazoo attorney, president of the six-county southwestern Michigan ACLU branch, introduced Union High School students to the organization Friday morning by cataloguing critics' caustic condemnations:
Not quite.
And no, ACLU doesn't stand for "Anti-Christian Legal Union."
The much-maligned and misunderstood American Civil Liberties Union "is the organization of which I'm a proud member," said Rodbard, a Jew from the north side of Chicago and the product of a liberal Democratic household.
Rodbard said his consciousness was raised in the late 1970s when white supremacists marched through Skokie, Ill., in Nazi uniforms because of the community's concentration of Holocaust survivors.
The ACLU in the 1940s represented West Virginia Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance because it violated a central tenet of their religious beliefs.
But "the ACLU does not hate religion," Rodbard said. "The ACLU supports and vigorously defends the right to freely exercise religious beliefs."
Despite its left-leaning, liberal reputation, Rodbard reminded of its support of Oliver North, who was part of a Reagan administration scheme to funnel money to Iran to buy weapons to give to Contras fighting Nicaragua's socialist government.
The ACLU represented a Dearborn student tossed out of school for wearing a shirt labeling President Bush an "international terrorist."
Even closer to home, the ACLU wrote a letter to the Lawrence school district for a portrait of Jesus Christ hung at an entrance. "A letter took care of it because they knew they were dead wrong," he said.
In Michigan, the ACLU represented women incarcerated in the Livingston County Jail because, contrary to men, they were denied work release.
An ACLU lawsuit is pending against Michigan "because MEAP scores as a measure for determining whether or not students should get a scholarship is really not a good measure" because schools statewide do not offer the same opportunities, Rodbard said.
Widespread discrimination against people with HIV or AIDS persists in rural America, ACLU reported Nov. 13.
The ACLU "is the largest civil rights advocacy organization in the United States" with 400,000 members around the country, including 11,000 in Michigan (but just one paid staff attorney).
The branch Rodbard heads has almost 800 members.
The ACLU wants to repeal the USA Patriot Act -- "a product of fear, panic and uncertainty" -- because its main goal is to "advance the real McCoy, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments)." The ACLU advocates for the rights of individuals who rely on fundamental values found in constitutional provisions.
Contrary to a recent letter written to the Kalamazoo Gazette claiming the ACLU originated with "communists from Russia, in fact it was founded 83 years ago by Roger Baldwin, the son of a very wealthy Boston shoe manufacturer," Rodbard said.
Members of the first ACLU board of directors included: Felix Frankfurter, later a U.S. Supreme Court justice; James Weldon Johnson, the author and poet who was general secretary of the NAACP; Margaret Sanger, a founder of the Planned Parenthood movement; and Helen Keller, the deaf and blind lecturer and writer.
Rodbard is actually describing 1917-1919. The attorney general was A. Mitchell Palmer, of Palmer Raids notoriety, assisted by J. Edgar Hoover.
Rodbard regards the ACLU as the "largest public interest law firm in the United States" because "no one files more lawsuits and appears before the Supreme Court more, except for the U.S. Justice Department. We represent people of color, Native Americans, women, prisoners, physically and mentally disabled individuals. We represent the poor, but in a larger sense we represent the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment and the Fifth Amendment. Those are our real clients."
Concerns about the Patriot Act forged an odd coalition surpassing the "usual left-wing organizations" to include Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, the American Conservative Union and the U.S. Taxpayers Union because "privacy affects everyone," Rodbard said.
The "first frontal challenge" to Section 215 of the Patriot Act was filed in Detroit in July.
The Patriot Act also "allows the imprisonment without charge for up to six months or more of immigrants to this country simply on the basis of an allegation that they may be connected some way with terrorism. After 9/11 you kept hearing reports that the Justice Department had rounded up 300 people suspected of terrorism or connected with al Qaeda. The next week it was 600. After a couple of months it was 1,000, then 1,110. Then they stopped reporting the numbers because they didn't find anybody who was a terrorist. They have imprisoned probably in excess of 5,000 individuals. There are two people who have been indicted for terrorist activities" unrelated to Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Section 215 "allows the FBI to go before a special court established 25 years ago. It's called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, Court, established to allow the FBI and CIA to obtain search warrants for individuals connected to foreign powers who were not U.S. citizens for the sole purpose of investigating foreign intelligence activity," Rodbard said. "It's a secret court. Nobody appears before it but the FBI. There are no appeals. Warrants were issued in about 50 cases over 25 years. The Patriot Act changed all that. Now the FBI can go before the FISA court and say they want a search warrant for someone's medical records, what he's been reading in the library, what books he's been buying, organizations he's joined and what videos he's taken out because they think he's involved with international terrorism. The record holders are forbidden to tell him that there's been a search," contrary to Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure without probable cause a crime has been committed.
Rodbard made reference to Jose Pedilla, the U.S. citizen who walked off an airplane in Chicago and was "swooped up and secreted away" to a military base by authorities investigating the possible creation of a dirty bomb. "That was two years ago. He hasn't been heard from since. He hasn't had access to lawyers or his family. He hasn't been charged with any crime, but President Bush declared him an enemy combatant. We are fighting that, too, and it will make it to the Supreme Court."
Where does the ACLU draw the line? a student asked. "Why would you want to help someone who could possibly injure a large amount of people? If you help a person like that and they commit a heinous crime like blowing up a plane, how could you live with yourself?"
There are 210 U.S. communities, from Kalamazoo and Chicago to San Francisco and Seattle, and three states -- Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont -- which have enacted resolutions opposing the Patriot Act.