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New York Coalition Formed to Defend the Bill of Rights

by Andy Humm, Apr 02, 2003
 

It has always been the mission of the New York Civil Liberties Union to preserve the Bill of Rights, which were the first amendments to the United States Constitution. But those rights have come under such unprecedented attack since the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, they say, that a new group has been formed to augment their efforts.

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The New York City Bill of Rights Defense Campaign brings together the Civil Liberties Union with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Council on American Islamic Relations, the NAACP, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund , and other groups in a campaign to protect civil liberties at the local and state level, while focusing New York efforts against federal encroachments. An organizing conference was held in Brooklyn on March 23rd at Long Island University.

"The attack on civil liberties -- the war on them, really -- has filtered down from the top and is manifested in state legislation and is also relevant on the city level," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. She cites in particular the New York Police Department's efforts to dismantle the 1985 Handshu decision (based on a lawsuit that went back to 1971) that limits police surveillance of lawful political activity such as demonstrations.

In February, Federal District Court Charles S. Haight, The New York Times reported, modified the Handshu order citing "fundamental changes in the threats to public security." Newsday reported that "Haight's ruling expands the department's investigatory powers, allowing all branches to investigate suspected political activity. Under the Handshu guidelines, such investigations were limited to one unit, the Public Security Section." It also "modifies departmental constraints that there must be a 'criminal predicate' - the suspicion of unlawful activity - to justify political surveillance or infiltration. The department will now be bound by FBI guidelines, Haight ruled, which are less restrictive."

As Lieberman puts it: "Without more than just saying there is a threat of terrorist attacks, there was not an adequate basis to eliminate or modify Handshu. It didn't prohibit police from spying, it simply set up a mechanism where the police centralized the operations in one unit and had to get prior or after-the-fact approval for surveillance or infiltration of organizations predicated on an internal showing of some criminal suspicion. And if it were just a matter of lawful protest, they wouldn't be able to get the approval." Lieberman said that the Handshu procedure "required a paper trail, which served as a significant deterrent."

At recent anti-war demonstrations, "police were out taking pictures from rooftops and on the streets," Lieberman noted. "They wouldn't have been doing that before." The Civil Liberties Union will soon publish a report on city and police tactics at the massive February 15 rally; demonstrators were not allowed to march past the United Nations.

But Lieberman said that "the major concern is that we'll see a return to undercover surveillance and infiltration and collecting dossiers on the loyal opposition. There is a history of dirty tricks and saboteurs that is too pervasive to ignore, particularly at a time when people are in motion out on the streets. We should not be intimidated or chilled by police disruption and becoming fact files at One Police Plaza."

The goals of the new coalition, Lieberman said, are to fight "the end of open government, pervasive government eavesdropping and surveillance, discriminatory and repressive immigration policies, preventive distention, military tribunals, and the profiling of immigrants."

City Councilmember Bill Perkins is developing a bill with Council members Hiram Monserrate of Queens and Charles Barron of Brooklyn that calls upon the city to monitor abuses in these areas. Lieberman noted that the fear of government repression by Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants is so pervasive that many "are afraid to access government services that they desperately need, including health care, calling the police, and even reporting fires."

In sum, Lieberman said, "the notion that the New York Civil Liberties Union should be launching a campaign to defend the bill of rights is in and of itself a commentary on our times. After all, it is our mission in life. But the attacks by Bush/Ashcroft in response to September 11th have created an enormous crisis that none of us could have predicted that we would see in our lifetimes. They are putting an infrastructure in place to return to secret government, dirty tricks, spying on lawful political activity, and amassing of data on private activity that sets up the kind of Big Brother society that goes well beyond anything we ever contemplated."

New York City Kept Enforcing Anti-Sodomy Laws for More than 20 Years After They Were Declared Unconstitutional

All sodomy laws in this country may be dead by June if the United States Supreme Court rules as expected in a Texas case just argued, but while New York's law has been unconstitutional under the state's constitution for 23 years, hundreds of New Yorkers have been prosecuted in that time in a scandal uncovered by Duncan Osborne of the Gay City News .

The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments March 26 on the Texas "Homosexual Conduct" law, banning people of the same sex from having sex. Depending on what grounds the court uses, it could get rid of this and three other gay-only sodomy laws as well as laws in nine other states that penalize non-vaginal intercourse for both same-sex and male-female couples. I covered the hearing for the Gay City News in "Reckoning for Sodomy."

Most of these states that still have these laws are in the South. New York's law was overturned by the Court of Appeals, the state's highest, in 1980. Osborne found that there were 39 arrests for consensual sodomy in Brooklyn alone from 1981 to 2001 and some in every borough. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes would not comment on the matter.

The invalidated law was not actually removed from the books by the state legislature until 2000. Richard Haymes, director of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, told the paper, "That there is discretion to make arrests under a law that has been found unconstitutional seems even more surreal because what it is saying is that there are certain boroughs where it is safer to have certain types of sex than other boroughs."

Osborne wrote that "prosecutors may have been using the prospect of dismissing the sodomy charge in order to get a plea to a lesser charge."

Human Rights Commission Testifies at City Council

City Human Rights Commission Chair Patricia Gatling testified before the committees on general welfare and finance on March 13 that the goal of eliminating the 5,000 case backlog at the commission has "been achieved" and that the agency secured "close to a million dollars for complainants"-three times the amounts won in 2000 and 2001.

Despite an initial increase in funding for the agency under Mayor Bloomberg after steady starvation by the Giuliani administration, Gatling reported that their fiscal year 2003 budget was cut by $350,000 and 2004 has already been cut another $200,000. She noted that "the possibility of a larger reduction and personnel losses looms," and that they have tried to supplement the budget with "grants, academic partnerships, intern programs, volunteer staff, and a federal contract."

Gatling also testified, "The mayor intends to submit legislation that would amend the city's Human Rights Law to make it substantially equivalent to the federal Fair Housing Act" so that the commission can be paid to investigate and prosecute housing complaints for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (57 on Time-Warner; 109 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.
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