3-Minute Civics: It’s time to talk about civil liberties

For the Monitor
Published: 4/12/2020 6:45:04 AM

Chances are you’re reading this column in isolation or quarantine, confined to the place you’ve been for a few weeks and will likely remain for another month, or months, more. This makes civil liberties the perfect topic for today’s civics column. Why? Keep reading.

First, let’s try to define civil liberties.

Civil liberties are the guarantees that make us free. They belong to every person in the United States, and they cannot be taken away by the government without due process.

An ideological basis for these freedoms lies in the Declaration of Independence’s familiar sentence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain Unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Our civil liberties are largely spelled out in the Bill of Rights and have been clarified over the years via additional constitutional amendments and judicial branch decisions.

A few examples of civil liberties that affect our lives on a regular basis are freedom of speech and expression, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and the right to vote.

(To clear up any confusion, our civil liberties coexist with our civil rights. The latter concern the right to be free from unequal treatment in protected categories such race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, gender identity, etc. Think of civil liberties as being about the rights themselves, while civil rights concern who has access to those rights. Both are essential, but civil rights are beyond the scope of this column.)

Did your eyebrows go up as you read the civil liberties paragraph because something seemed not quite right? Very good; give yourself a star! At least one of those freedoms guaranteed to us has been restricted. We have given up our freedom of assembly – or at least had it severely constrained. If it’s a fundamental guarantee, how is that possible?

Our nation is in the midst of a public health crisis on a scale unequaled for 102 years. Because of this, a public health emergency has been declared, and measures can and are being taken by national, state and local governments to deal with the coronavirus. In an emergency, public health event, governments can restrict our civil liberties, but those restrictions must be necessary and narrowly tailored to fit the situation, and they cannot last indefinitely.

So let’s take a look at the cause of our declared emergency and the accompanying restrictions. We are plagued with a highly contagious, deadly virus with a relatively long (two-week) incubation period. Federal, state and local governments are telling us, then, to stay at home, under strict two-week quarantines if we’re sick or have been exposed to someone who is sick or has him or herself been exposed. In some places, residents are told not to gather in groups of more than 10 people. We don’t yet know how long these restrictions will be in place, but we do know that on scientific models of the virus’s progress, we have not yet reached the predicted peak in New Hampshire or throughout most of the country.

Are these restrictions of our freedom of assembly necessary and narrowly tailored to fit the specific public health emergency we face? Yes, they are. If we ignore them, reliable scientific models show us that many, possibly millions more people across the country will die. And there is no end date yet for the restrictions because the virus is the only one who can call the shots on that. However – and this is important – most governments keep setting dates for re-evaluation of the restrictions they set, in part to demonstrate to the public that the restrictions they have placed upon us are intended to be in place for only as long as is absolutely necessary.

So, for now, we can say that the restrictions on our freedom to assemble (and on our freedom of movement) are appropriate.

In our nation’s history, restrictions on our civil liberties in response to crises have not always been so related or proportional to the emergency they’ve been called to address. During World War II, for example, Japanese Americans were forced from their homes and interned in camps in the western United States solely because of their ethnicity in an egregious violation of both their civil liberties and their civil rights. The action taken was not in any way necessary, nor was it narrowly tailored to address the emergency at hand. Japanese Americans’ civil liberties were unquestionably and improperly violated.

And this brings me to my last, perhaps most crucial point: even as we acknowledge the necessity of temporarily accepting restrictions on a few of our civil liberties, we must remain especially vigilant. The responsibility falls upon all of us, as citizens, to ensure that our liberties are returned to us when the public health crisis subsides. In addition, when other, unrelated liberties are threatened under cover of the crisis, we must stand up and object. This is what happened recently when attentive politicians and activists from the left and the right learned of a proposal by the U.S. Attorney General, under cover of the president’s emergency powers, to ask Congress for the power to allow judges to detain suspects indefinitely without a hearing, also known as the suspension of habeas corpus. The reaction to this egregious proposal is perhaps best summed up in a tweet by conservative Sen. Mike Lee of Utah: “OVER MY DEAD BODY.” Or as his Democratic colleague, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York put it, “Hell no.”

We’re living in a strange, scary time, when our lives are literally in peril. It’s a good idea to take a little of our time at home to learn about our civil liberties so we can make sure that they are not in peril, too.

(Tracy Hahn-Burkett lives in Bow.)


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