The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The grind: Civil liberties need to be protected

The U.S. loves to flaunt its unending freedom of expression, opportunity for peaceful protest and robust exchange of differing opinions. Or does it? Sometimes free speech makes people nervous and causes them to do unethical, even unconstitutional, things, like in the case of a Madison protest last year.

The Department of Homeland Security conducted, and later destroyed records of, a threat assessment of Madison pro-life and pro-choice activists at a rally last year, the Associated Press reported in the Star Tribune.

According to the report, the department had no record of threatening evidence, but was “worried” about the potential for violence. It wasn’t until an anti-abortion activist’s lawyer filed an open-records request that the threat assessment came to light.

This is troubling on several levels. The protesters of the rally were operating as assembled citizens, representing both sides of an admittedly divisive issue. But this kind of practice should be celebrated, not shunned and investigated.

It so rarely happens that people come together representing opposing viewpoints and act civilly toward each other. Unlike the obnoxious town-hall meetings this summer, there weren’t reports of assault rifles strapped to the backs of Second-Amendment-toting idiots. More likely, there were hand-painted signs and probably a few motivational speakers to articulate the feelings of the assembled people.

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Not only is it a waste of resources to investigate law-abiding citizens, but it’s unethical too. I understand that the U.S. is in a frenzy to proactively seek out even the most remote possibilities of risk, but this errs on absurdity.

Perhaps more troubling than the DHS’s investigation into the protests – both pro-lifers and pro-choicers, by the way – is the agency’s refusal to release the records for public inquiry.

The AP reported that the agency’s representative who put together the report was given “remedial training’ and inadequate guidance, but that statement sounds a bit too convenient. At what point do professionals who work to increase safety take a step back and say, “What are we really doing here?”

In today’s post-Sept. 11, paranoid and schizophrenic society, it’s tempting to listen blindly to officials that push an obsessive status quo. But young, enterprising officials need to take a stand to shift the Department of Homeland Security’s focus away from benign abortion protests to preventing explosive underpants from boarding airplanes.

When the Council Oak tree was threatened on campus, or the Student Senate passed the Blugold Commitment, people took notice and assembled themselves to peacefully and appropriately express their disapproval. This is wonderful. Regardless of who is right or wrong, this is how things should be.

Imagine that you participated in those protests. Let’s hypothetically consider that, in preparation for those events, campus and city police staged an investigation into the threat you posed on the community, every banal run-in with the police scrutinized.

You’d probably feel exposed, invaded, maybe worse. More than anything, you’d probably feel it was unnecessary.

The world becomes more complicated everyday. Public officials are nervously taking every precaution for fear that one of their decisions will backfire. Doctors, too, order a battery of tests for each patient, constantly paranoid they might be sued for malpractice. At some point, we all need to consider whether it’s worth it to engage in this conduct.

If elected officials ever hope to regain the public’s trust that they are sane and coherent leaders, then someone is going to need to step forward and ensure the civil liberties of citizens.

The Grind is a weekly column. Taintor, The Spectator’s editorial editor, can be reached at [email protected]

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The grind: Civil liberties need to be protected