Petitions may put civil rights on town meeting warnings

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(Host) In southeastern Vermont, petitions are being circulated that would place protection of civil rights on some March town meeting warnings. The petitioners say the U.S. war on terrorism is eroding essential American liberties and privacy.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more:

(Keese) Newfane Democrat Dan Darrow left his Vermont House seat because of illness. But recent developments have drawn him back into public life. Darrow believes that new federal laws aimed at fighting terrorism threaten freedoms guaranteed by the constitution and Bill of Rights.

(Darrow) “And this all became very frightening to me and I think it’s time we put a stop to it.”

(Keese) Now he’s circulating a petition to get the issue on the Town Meeting warning in his town, and encouraging other towns to do the same.

Darrow says the USA Patriot Act of October, 2001 and the recently passed Homeland Security Act give the government too much power. Supporters say the expanded powers are necessary to ferret out terrorists and prevent future attacks. Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge has promised to exercise care in balancing civil rights against the need to promote safety.

But Darrow says the laws set a dangerous precedent. He claims they allow the government to pry into medical and mental health records and personal activities such as reading habits and spending. They allow people suspected of terrorist ties to be secretly detained:

(Darrow) “The government can conduct secret searches, they conduct telephone and Internet surveillance. The attorney general and the secretary of state can designate domestic groups as terrorist organizations. Hopefully we can put a stop to it.”

(Keese) Darrow is not alone. In Brattleboro and nearby towns, a group called the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is also circulating petitions. Ellen Kaye is a coordinator of the group:

(Kaye) “The committee is modeling itself after the many Bill of Rights Defense Committees that have sprung up around the country. Since last May, there have been 21 resolutions passed around the country by these committees that have sprung up just to do this.”

(Keese) The Brattleboro resolution is similar to one adopted in December by the Burlington City Council. It calls on towns to uphold the rights of all residents, regardless of religion or nationality. It asks local officials to respect the rights to privacy, free expression, due process, and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Kaye says the resolution doesn’t ask police to disobey the law, but to defend it.

(Kaye) “We don’t want our local laws against discrimination to be superceded by the Patriot Act. We want everybody who lives in Windham County and Brattleboro to be safe from that kind of racial profiling and discrimination.”

(Keese) The resolution asks officials who cooperate with the new laws to report their activities to the town. It also asks Vermont’s Congressional delegation to work to repeal portions of the laws that threaten civil rights.

Dan Darrow has almost enough signatures to get his proposal on the Newfane Town Meeting warning. He doesn’t expect it will change things overnight. But at least it will get people thinking and talking about what he sees as a serious problem. And if enough people voice their objections, Darrow says, something will change.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Newfane.

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