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Board to ponder Patriot Act

By Andrew Lightman / Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2003

The Board of Aldermen will weigh the value of civil liberties against the threat of terrorism when they hear a petition to oppose the USA Patriot Act next week. A group of 136 Newton residents has signed a petition to go before the Programs and Services Committee, and then hope the aldermen will pass a resolution denouncing the USA Patriot Act.

Similar stands have been made in recent months by more than 100 communities nationwide all challenging the federal government's expanded powers to investigate people who might be connected to terror.

The resolution would instruct the Newton Police to not cooperate with federal officials in cases where civil liberties might be violated. It also asks that signs be placed at the Newton Free Library informing all patrons that library records and computer files are now subject to secret search by federal agents under the Act. If approved, the signs in the library would be the only way a person would have any idea they could be investigated. According to Kathy Glick-Weil, director of the Newton Free Library, she can only inform the city's legal counsel of a USA Patriot Act investigation. Any other communication of an investigation, even with the suspected, would be illegal.

To Glick-Weil, that notion of a secret investigation is frightening, even one aimed at intercepting or disrupting terrorism.

"If you have the power to subpoena someone, then you ought to tell them," she said. "From my perspective, it's very dangerous. The law says you can't look at library records without a search warrant. I think that's an invasion of people's privacy."

Especially since records kept at her library are not public.

"In Massachusetts, and across almost every state, public library records are private," said Glick-Weil. "When we restrict people's civil liberties to protect ourselves, historically we haven't been happy with that and we've found that it didn't protect us at all."

But Newton attorney Tony Winsor said the USA Patriot Act is even much more intrusive. He said the Office of Homeland Security currently interviews and takes mug shots of immigrants. Windsor said some immigrants are detained for days without a chance to talk to their family or a lawyer.

"There's a whole underside to this that white, middle-class people don't see," Windsor said. "But it is a Nazi-like situation for non-white, Arab men." Winsor said the Office of Homeland Security gathers information used to profile plane passengers. It designates which travelers need to be searched, and which are prohibited from flying entirely.

"I don't know who in Newton this happened to, but it may have," he said. However Winsor said the law could one day be used to treat Arabs and activists as potential enemies.

"It infringes on people's First Amendment rights, their freedom to associate," he said. "When you give enormous power like this to the government, they abuse it. Power is abused."

The USA Patriot Act was passed overwhelmingly by Congress following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It gives the government new powers to use wiretaps, electronic surveillance and other information gathering. The Cape Cod town of Orleans recently passed a similar resolution against this measure, and so has Cambridge. Communities in Broward County, Fla., Yolo County, Calif., Minneapolis and Missoula, Mont., have also passed resolutions opposing the measure.

Not all Newton residents look at the USA Patriot Act the way Winsor does. Former School Committee member Brenda Loew said she is organizing a group to oppose the resolution, which she believes advocates lawlessness.

"I just sense there are a lot of angry people, perhaps residents of Newton, who are against Bush and against conservatism," she said. "These are the people that support the rights of the communists in China and in Cuba ahead of the rights of Americans."

Loew said she supports the USA Patriot Act because it aims at protecting American from the terrorist attacks.

"I'm all for anything that ensures national security," she said. "If you aren't doing anything wrong, if you don't have a guilty conscience, they you have no reason to be against it."

"If someone is up to something, and they think they are up to something, they have my blessing to investigate," Loew added. "If for some reason they fit a profile that is suspect, check them out. Err on the side of caution. Protect the citizens." But though Newton Corner resident Daniel Shaw does not have a guilty conscience, he is a vocal critic of the USA Patriot Act. Shaw fears the USA Patriot Act lets the government make arrests without probable cause. And with the private nature of the investigations it allows, Shaw believes no one is safe.

"Who knows who is a target?" he said. "I could be on a list because of a professor I know or something."

As a psychiatrist, who treats some North Africans and Pakistanis, Shaw has noticed an increased apprehension among his patients who frequently worry over new, more invasive INS registration policies. But if a patient was somehow suspected of terrorism, Shaw said all privacy would go out the window. "If one was a suspect, my phone would be tapped, their records to some extent would be made available," he said. "[The USA Patriot Act] hangs as a cloud. It has the ability to affect treatments and doctor-patient trust." Shaw said by passing the resolution, Newton has a chance to stand up to an unjust law.

"The point of the resolution is that this s one out of hundreds of communities that say the USA Patriot Act is dangerous," he said. "The point of the resolution is to join other communities in making this public and putting Newton on record as against it."

Brooke Lipsitt, president of the Board of Aldermen, is unsure how the board will vote on the issue. She expects no action to take place on the resolution until the Programs and Services Committee has a chance to look at and debate it. "I think it will be a very interesting discussion when it comes before the board," she said. "The USA Patriot Act is a complex piece of legislation."

But heading into the debate, Lipsitt said she already has her concerns about the law. "I'm someone who cares a great deal about protecting people's civil liberties," she said. "And I am worried that the USA Patriot Act will inhibit those rights."

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