Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Individual Freedom vs. Security

When I was in second grade, my family moved from Nova Scotia, Canada, to New Hampshire. The majority of my education has taken place here in the U.S., and I have learned about Canadian history and government from reading and from family. In fifth grade, I started to learn about the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment freedoms, particularly the freedom of expression in speech and the press, have become topics of great interest to me, especially in comparison to Canadian rights and freedoms. Historically, the backgrounds of these freedoms are fascinating and diverse from country to country. They are of great relevance, currently dominating the news because of the allegations that the PATRIOT Act is limiting American freedoms. As the debate rages, it is important to keep in mind past cases when national security interests overtook civil liberties interests, and monitor the current situation accordingly.

The U.S. Bill of Rights' guarantee of freedom of expression arose from the British laws of the time. Free speech was allowed for Parliament members, but the common people were prohibited from committing "seditious libel," or criticizing the government. The colonists felt that citizens should be allowed to speak their minds, only censoring speech that was religious blasphemy. Though the British tried repeatedly to enforce their laws, after the 1735 Zenger trial they found it much more difficult. John Peter Zenger, the German immigrant printer of the "New York Weekly Journal," published editorials, written by lawyer James Alexander, that were critical of the colonial governor, William Cosby. Zenger's lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, based his defense of Zenger on persuading the jury that they should judge on the law of the case, not the facts. The jury agreed, acquitting Zenger despite the judges' instructions. The Zenger case had a huge influence on the American insistence on the right to free expression, which was expressed by Bill of Rights author James Madison and ultimately protected in the First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...." It is harder to pin down a single event that illustrates the Canadian commitment to freedom of expression; documents since the Constitution Act of 1867 have upheld the Canadian right to free speech and a free press. These include the Diefenbaker Canadian Bill of Rights, passed in 1960, and the more prominent Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, passed by the hard effort of Pierre Trudeau in the Constitution Act of 1982.

The right to free expression in personal speech and in the press has been both challenged and upheld throughout U.S. history. The Sedition Acts of 1798 made it illegal to criticize actions of the President and laws of the country. Though it was widely unpopular, the Supreme Court never heard a challenge to the law and it quietly died when the law expired in 1801. Between then and 2001, the only major limitation on free expression in the U.S. was the Sedition Acts of 1918, which limited freedom of speech that would promote an anti-government uprising during World War I. In Canada, the biggest challenge to free expression occurred in 1970 with the use of the War Measures Act. Passed initially in 1914, this act gives sweeping authority to the Canadian government in times of crisis. It authorizes the government to do whatever it considers "necessary...for the security, defence, peace, order and welfare of Canada." The act can only be invoked during times of "war, invasion, or insurrection." It has been used three times in Canada's history: during World War I, World War II, and during the October Crisis of 1970. In the October Crisis, a terrorist group known as the FLQ (Front de liberation du Quebec) kidnapped two high-level Canadian officials in an attempt to force the government to pay more attention to several social problems. They made several demands, including ones for ransom money and the release of several criminals from jail. In response, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau enacted the War Measures Act. This suspended the Canadian Bill of Rights and gave police new powers to search, arrest, and detain people on the slightest suspicion of association with terrorist organizations.

After September 11, 2001, the civil liberties landscape in the U.S. altered significantly. With the terrorist attacks, Americans lost some sense of invincibility. Congress quickly passed the USA PATRIOT Act to impede potential attackers from destroying more lives. It gave the FBI and other organizations the ability to more closely monitor records, phone lines, private property, and other things. At the same time, it reduced both the need for the investigators to go through the court system and the rights of people to challenge the government in court over illegal searches. While this has undeniably increased national security in the U.S., some (including the ACLU) believe that this law denies-or at least has the potential to deny-many Americans their basic Constitutional rights. It also reduces Americans' right to privacy, because it does not require that the people under investigation be informed. This has thrown the U.S. into turmoil over the relative importance of the guaranteed freedoms found in the Bill of Rights that have laid the foundation of American beliefs for two hundred years, and national and personal security from terrorism.

The question that interests me is: is it possible to have a secure nation while preserving the civil liberties that both Americans and Canadians have enjoyed for many years? Though I have not formed a firm opinion, I think that the balance between national security and civil liberties needs to be carefully maintained. If national security dominates civil liberties even in the absence of crisis, our democratic way of life is threatened. This is how anarchy and/or dictatorship have gained a foothold in other countries. It is important for leaders to remain flexible as to which aspect of society (security or liberty) is most important at any given time, and lead accordingly. A classic example of this was Pierre Trudeau's leadership in the October FLQ crisis of 1970. With chaos breaking out in Quebec, Trudeau saw the need to temporarily suspend Canadian civil liberties to resolve the problem. He did so decisively, and when the crisis was over the government returned to the more free society that had been the previous status quo.

As a Canadian raised in the U.S., I've had the opportunity to compare and contrast American and Canadian history and government, and the difficult trade-offs between national security and civil rights. The historical shifts towards one extreme or the other within the U.S. and Canada illustrate the importance of maintaining a balance most of the time, with temporary adjustments in times of crisis. The most important thing is to maintain the stability of the country so that cherished historical freedoms, such as the freedom of expression, can be preserved even in times of uncertainty.

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