H I L L C O U N T R Y
This article is excerpted by permission from the May, 2005, edition of the Hill Country Observer, an alternative newspaper for eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and Berkshire County. Pick-up your free copy of the Observer during the first week of the month at hundreds of locations throughout the region.
In ordinary times, May town meetings in the Berkshires deal with such matters as town budgets, tax rates, school expenditures and such traditional acts as the naming of fence viewers, sextons, pound keepers and sealers of lumber, wood and bark.
But these are not ordinary times. The nation may be at war with an elusive enemy, though it’s not quite certain. It depends on whom you believe, and skepticism abounds in the Berkshires.
So on May 5 in Lenox and May 17 in Williamstown, local voters will take up the issue of whether the danger to the nation is so imminent that it requires extraordinary measures. They will consider town meeting articles that would put their communities on record as opposing what critics say is the abridgment of civil liberties embodied in the USA Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act was adopted by overwhelming congressional majorities in October 2001, in an atmosphere of fury and panic that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The town meeting articles in Lenox and Williamstown both are being presented to voters as a result of citizen petitions. If approved, the resolutions would urge the Berkshires’ state legislators, congressman and two U.S. senators to support the repeal of certain provisions in the Patriot Act that are perceived as rescinding constitutional rights.
The resolutions cite the law’s vague definition of “terrorism,” which gives authorities license to seize personal financial and medical records, monitor sales at bookstores and usage of libraries, secretly detain people without charges and conduct secret surveillance of e-mail and other communications.
The issue is timely, because the USA Patriot Act is due to expire at the end of the year. This spring, congressional committees are conducting hearings on its renewal. In the wings is what critics say is an even more draconian measure, dubbed Patriot Act II.
In response, 378 towns and cities across the nation — 50 of them in Massachusetts — have adopted resolutions protesting the law’s provisions, according to the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a group based in Northampton, Mass.
“I am happy to see it happening,” said U.S. Rep. John Olver, D-Amherst, who was one of only 66 House members to vote against the act in 2001 and whose sprawling 1st Congressional District runs from the New York border east to the Connecticut River.
“The danger of taking away freedoms is greater than the danger from terrorists — even though our war in Iraq has created a lot of potential terrorists,” he said.
Whichever way the Lenox and Williamstown votes go, however, Olver said he expects the Patriot Act to be renewed. The danger, he said, is that the law could be made permanent, without the safeguard of a “sunset” clause under which its provisions would expire in a few years unless Congress specifically renews them.
“When you take away civil liberties and personal freedoms that have been enjoyed for two centuries, then it’s something each new Congress should have a chance to look at,” he said. “The perception of the risk right after 9/11 is different than it is now.”
Guidance to police
Of the two resolutions, the one being debated in Williamstown is the more explicit. After listing grievances with the Patriot Act, the measure calls upon state representatives “to support a state resolution opposing the Patriot Act,” and it urges Olver and Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry to seek the act’s repeal.
It further instructs the town manager to prohibit local police from “engaging in surveillance of individuals and groups based on their participation in activities protected by the First Amendment.”
The measure directs the town librarian to warn patrons their choices of reading material may be subject to investigation, and it orders the local superintendent of schools to “provide notice to individuals whose education records have been obtained by law enforcement agents.”
The Williamstown selectmen have taken a neutral stance on whether voters should approve the Patriot Act article. But the board’s inaction is fine with Ray Warner, a retired New York Times copy editor who led the petition drive to put the issue to a town meeting vote.
“It was wise of the selectmen not to vote on it, because they haven’t heard the arguments on both sides,” Warner said. “It’s a lot different than voting on a budget when you’ve heard comment and had input from the Finance Committee. Let the town vote on it. I’m optimistic it will pass. The town voted 4-to-1 for Kerry.”
Even among opponents of the Patriot Act, however, there has been grumbling that Warner’s petition goes too far.
“Requesting police to disobey what they perceive to be the law and what may be the law is more than asking the town to protect rights,” said Margo Krupp, one of the petition’s signers.
In response, Warner argued that “the Police Department is independent. It’s not an agent of the FBI.”