Clinton's Record on Civil Liberties
There have been American presidents to whom the Constitution has been a nuisance to be overruled by any means necessary. In 1798, only seven years after the Bill of Rights was ratified, John Adams triumphantly led Congress in the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which imprisoned a number of journalists and others for bringing the president or Congress into "contempt or disrepute." So much for the First Amendment.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln actually suspended the writ of habeas corpus. Alleged constitutional guarantees of peaceful dissent were swept away during the First World War -- with the approval of Woodrow Wilson. For example, there were more than 1,900 prosecutions for anti-war books, newspaper articles, pamphlets and speeches. And Richard Nixon seemed to regard the Bill of Rights as primarily a devilish source of aid to his enemy. No American president, however, has done so much damage to constitutional liberties as Bill Clinton -- often with the consent of Republicans in Congress. But it has been Clinton who had the power and the will to seriously weaken our binding document in ways that were almost entirely ignored by the electorate and the press during the campaign.
Unlike Lincoln, for example, Clinton did a lot more than temporarily suspend habeas corpus. One of his bills that has been enacted into law guts the rights that Thomas Jefferson insisted be included in the Constitution. A state prisoner on death row now has only a year to petition a federal court to review the constitutionality of his trial or sentence. In many previous cases of prisoners eventually freed after years of waiting to be executed, proof of their innocence has been discovered long after the present one year limit.
Moreover, the Clinton administration is -- as the ACLU's Laura Murphy recently told the National Law Journal -- "the most wire-tap-friendly administration in history."
And Clinton ordered the Justice Department to appeal a unanimous 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals decision declaring unconstitutional the Communications Decency Act censoring the Internet, which he signed into law.
There is a chilling insouciance in Clinton's elbowing the Constitution out of the way. He blithely, for instance, has stripped the courts of their power to hear certain kinds of cases. As Anthony Lewis points out in the New York Times, Clinton has denied many people their day in court.
For one example, says Lewis, "The new immigration law . . . takes away the rights of thousands of aliens who may be entitled to legalize their situation under a 1986 statute giving amnesty to illegal aliens." Cases involving as many as 300,000 people who may still qualify for amnesty have been waiting to be decided. All have now been thrown out of court by the new immigration law.
There have been other Clinton revisions of the Constitution, but in sum -- as David Boaz of the Cato Institute has accurately put it -- Clinton has shown "a breathtaking view of the power of the federal government, a view directly opposite the meaning of 'civil libertarian.' "
During the campaign there was no mention at all of this breathtaking exercise of federal power over constitutional liberties. None by former senator Bob Dole who has largely been in agreement with this big government approach to constitutional "guarantees." Nor did the press ask the candidates about the Constitution.
Laura Murphy concludes that "both Clinton and Dole are indicative of how far tbe American people have slipped away from the notions embodied in the Bill of Rights." She omitted the role of the press, which seems focused primarily on that part of the First Amendment that protects the press.
Particularly revealing were the endorsements of Clinton by the New York Times, The Washington Post and the New Republic, among others. In none of them was the president's civil liberties record probed. (The Post did mention the FBI files at the White House.) Other ethical problems were cited, but nothing was mentioned about habeas corpus, court-stripping, lowering the content of the Internet to material suitable for children and the Clinton administration's decided lack of concern for privacy protections of the individual against increasingly advanced government technology.
A revealing footnote to the electorate's ignorance of this subverting of the Constitution is a statement by N. Don Wycliff, editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune. He tells Newsweek that "people are not engaged in the [political] process because there are no compelling issues driving them to participate. It would be different if we didn't have peace and prosperity."What more could we possibly want?
We're not trying to bash Clinton and Gore here. We're pointing out why many on the left (e.g. the ACLU and criminal defense lawyers) bond with the right on privacy and civil liberties issues. The centrist dems and republicans are the ones to fear. When we're thinking of who the Dems should run for president in 2004, we hope people will be attuned to the importance of preserving our fundamental consitutional rights.
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