President's Column: Our Diminishing Bill of Rights

Our Diminishing Bill of Rights

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I decided to use my first column to write about freedom. We do not appreciate it enough. We must find ways to impress upon people — particularly our young people — that ignorance of our constitutional rights all but guarantees their demise.

Talk show host Jerry Springer and I were panelists in 2000 at a program discussing current events with approximately 25 high school students chosen by their schools because they were the class leaders. This was after the Columbine tragedy but before the 9/11 terrorist attack. We posed this question to the students: Are you willing to give up some of your freedoms in exchange for safety? With two exceptions, all of the participants said yes; they were willing to trade their rights for security. The two students who disagreed with their peers — a young man and young lady of Asian and Eastern European descent, respectively — were also the only two who had not been born in the United States.

“My family came to this country for freedom,” the young man said when I asked him why he was not willing to sacrifice freedom for security. The young lady explained that she and the members of her family wanted freedom so badly that “we gave up our language and our culture” and came to the United States to start anew.

It is frightening that the others were willing to give up their freedoms. How could they do it so easily?

We live in an era in which a United States citizen can be labeled an “enemy combatant” and detained indefinitely without legal counsel. The police can violate the “knock and announce” rule, come into our homes and seize evidence, and use that evidence against us at trial. The guarantees in the Bill of Rights — which, among other liberties, prohibit unreasonable searches and entitle us to a trial in front of our peers — are constantly under attack. Don’t believe me? Read Rumsfeld v. Padilla, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, and Hudson v. Michigan. Do our children know anything about these issues? Do they care?

In 2005, researchers at the University of Connecticut conducted a national study of 112,000 students to measure their attitudes about basic freedoms. More than one-third of the students said the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment go too far. Seventy-five percent said they take the First Amendment for granted or were not sure how they felt about it. We are talking about this country’s future doctors, law enforcement officers, politicians, and voters. And they are not sure about their feelings toward the freedom of speech, the press, religion, or assembly.

We need more government and civics lessons taught in our schools. Let’s make students aware that the protections of the Bill of Rights have impacted many social issues throughout our history and played an important role in some of our most significant legal battles. Let’s give them examples of how different their lives would be if there were no Bill of Rights.

Immigrants seeking American citizenship must demonstrate a fundamental understanding of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Why do we ask more of new Americans than we do of those who were born here? I say that no one should graduate from high school not knowing what naturalized citizens know about the Bill of Rights.

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Our most basic rights are being bombarded on every side. The rights that America’s youth take for granted are the very same rights for which prior generations marched, fought, and died. If criminal defense lawyers are truly “liberty’s last champions,” we have a duty not only to defend the Bill of Rights but also to shape the conscience of the nation. If Patrick Henry had shut up, today we might be living in the Colonies — still without a bill of rights.

We are at war with evil people from within and without bent on destroying our rights and our freedom. This is not a time for the fainthearted and weak-kneed. We simply cannot afford to lose this war. As Barry Goldwater said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

I would like to know what became of those teenagers I met in 2000. By now they have graduated from high school and perhaps college. I am especially curious to find out what happened to the two students who said they would not give up their freedoms in exchange for security. Although there is no way of knowing for sure, I would like to think both of them are in law school, well on their way to becoming criminal defense lawyers and Liberty’s Last Champions. 

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