Bill of Rights Defense Campaign

BILL OF RIGHTS Defense Committee - Working with communities to uphold the Bill of RightsWe the People
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November 21, 2005


Last week, Congressional revolt broke out on Capitol Hill, as a bi-partisan group of Senators and Representatives stopped the PATRIOT Act reauthorization cold. Calling the draft reauthorization bill a “huge step backward for civil liberties,” the group pledged to use the filibuster to block the legislation if necessary. Unable to gather support for the bill, which ignored previous House and Senate votes, Congress left for Thanksgiving break without offering a final reauthorization bill (see the 11/19 Boston Globe article).

Congratulations to the grassroots! According to the New York Times, “votes by nearly 400 communities urging further restrictions amounted to a national referendum on the balance between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberties” (see the 11/17 article)

The few emboldened members of Congress who stood up for civil liberties last week gave us a new window of opportunity to organize locally and convey our hopes and concerns to individual members of Congress before they return to Washington on December 12. They may vote on a new PATRIOT Act reauthorization bill that week.

Here are some options for community actions over the next 2½ weeks before Congress returns to tackle the reauthorization. Feel free to use one or two, or several in combination! See sample talking points below.

  • Gather your allies and call them to action. Pull out the list of endorsers and supporters from your community resolution campaign and other efforts. It’s time to call the most influential members of your community—city councilors, the mayor, state senators and representatives, librarians, booksellers, and business owners, educators, and attorneys--together for a series of actions to show your senators and representative that the people they represent are serious about protecting essential freedoms.
  • Set up in-district meetings with your Congressional representatives. All of Congress is on a Thanksgiving recess, so it’s time to make those calls to set up in-district meetings with your Senators and Representatives. It’s also possible you can coordinate a meeting with another group that’s already scheduled. So, find out what your Senators and Representatives have planned during their break, and squeeze your contingent in for a meeting. Let us know so we can inform other local BORDCs and other organizations that may have members in the district.
  • Attend your senators’ and representative’s town meeting. Make sure your allies attend any town meetings that your members of Congress have planned, and that they are ready to ask good questions. Call the members’ Washington or district office to find out when and where town meetings will take place. Let us know about any scheduled town meetings.
  • Set up Editorial Board meetings at your local newspaper. This can generate news coverage for your local group as you organize against the reauthorization and set up meetings with your Congressional representatives. It can also be a service to local editors and writers who may not follow PATRIOT Act issues on a regular basis, and may help in convincing editors to run an opinion editorial written by someone in your group.
  • Organize a “Circle of Scribes” and launch a campaign to generate letters-to-the-editor and letters to your senators or representative. Gather all those in your community who want to write letters or set up a table at a local event, with a sample letter and some suggested talking points. By yourselves, you might write a letter or two, but by meeting together, you can come up with an entire letter-writing campaign to stimulate public dialogue and discussion.
  • Take out a full-page advertisement in the local newspaper. This may be easier and more affordable than you think. Consider running a signature advertisement, and ask each person who signs to contribute $5 or more -- you may be surprised at how fast you collect funds, when you give people an opportunity to publicly defend the Bill of Rights. Be sure to time this to coincide with your Congressperson’s return to the community, and just to make sure she or he sees it, clip it out and send several copies to the Congressional office, along with a letter. Click here for sample ad.
  • Hold a public forum or film showing. Consider showing “Unconstitutional” or “Beyond the Patriot Act.” Invite your Congressional representatives.
  • Plan a commemoration of Bill of Rights Day on December 15. Back in the 13th century, when common people initially won basic freedoms in the Magna Carta, they read the charters of liberties aloud four times a year. That simple tradition reminded people of the liberties to which they were entitled. With our rights at stake seven centuries later, it is a good time to remember our own charter of liberties.
  • Team up with other Bill of Rights groups in your state. Together, you can coordinate meetings with your U.S. Senators. Chances are, the Senators will have scheduled public meetings of their own while they’re back in the district. Make sure all the meetings they schedule (no matter what the subject matter) are attended by at least a few Bill of Rights defenders, and challenge the Senator publicly to promise to only vote yes for a reauthorization bill that provides significant oversight. (If you aren’t familiar with other groups in your state, contact Jessie for the east region,, or Hope for the west region,

This is a critical time to ensure that the extensive powers granted by the PATRIOT Act are not expanded and that new controls are placed on its misuse. Please contact your senators and representatives.

Sample Talking Points (View expanded talking points.)

The draft PATRIOT Act reauthorization compromise currently:

  • Fails to ensure a connection between records sought and a suspected terrorist. The bill maintains the current, inadequate “relevancy standard” for records sought under section 215, which requires only that the government claim that the information it seeks is relevant to an investigation, without having to connect the target of the investigation to terrorism.
  • Places seven-year sunsets on sections 206, 215, and “lone wolf.” Seven-year sunsets would mean that, cumulatively, we would have to wait 11 years from the passage of the PATRIOT Act until these powers are substantively reviewed. This extension ignores previous, unanimous House and Senate votes for four-year sunsets.
  • Expands National Security Letter (NSL) powers. Any business that does not comply with an NSL could face criminal penalties. Furthermore, the report does not provide a meaningful mechanism for challenging NSLs in court, and does not ensure that the information gathered by these letters is destroyed if it is unrelated to the investigation for which it was sought.
  • Creates only illusory rights to challenge orders for records and gag orders. Businesses receiving requests for records would be allowed to contact an attorney, but would have only limited rights to challenge orders for records in court. Likewise, a recipient would technically have the right to challenge a gag order, but the court would treat the government’s assertion of national security, diplomatic relations, or an ongoing criminal investigation, as conclusive.
  • Includes harmful new provisions. Provisions that were not included in either the House or the Senate bill have been added to the conference report that would, among other things, create new death penalties and seriously alter habeas corpus. Many of the provisions are completely unrelated to the PATRIOT Act and serve to make it a “Christmas tree” bill, violating House rules to pass a clean bill.

Thanks for all you do.