Local ACLU optimistic about D.C. shake-up

Group hopeful that Democratic majority will lead to revamping of privacy-rights laws

The Democrat-controlled House and Senate that rolled into action Thursday has local members of the American Civil Liberties Union hoping for a revamping of some civil liberties laws.

“We are tentatively hopeful that the Democrats will reverse the terrible course that the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress has set over the last six years,” said Brett Shirk, executive director for the nonpartisan ACLU for the Kansas and western Missouri affiliate in Kansas City, Mo.

Shirk said objections over the Patriot Act, surveillance and torture are the top issues he’ll be addressing at the national meeting in Washington, D.C., later this year.

Phil Minkin, president of the ACLU’s 600-member Douglas County chapter, recognizes the friction created by the federal government’s “need to know” for security reasons. But Democrats should prioritize securing privacy rights by requiring searches to be court-sanctioned, he said.

“We’re all now aware that this is going to be a long-term war with no end in sight,” he said. “And we can’t relinquish our civil liberties in the hopes of getting a little more security.”

Craig Campbell, Douglas County Republican chairman, thinks the Patriot Act enacted by a Republican controlled Congress in 2001 and renewed in 2006 protects the nation from terrorism, but affects civil liberties.

“There’s obviously going to be some that are curtailed. You want to keep that at a minimum, but not handcuff however the administration conducts the war on terror,” said Campbell, an insurance agent in Lawrence. “And that’s our first goal, to protect our country.”

Removing or revising part of the Patriot Act is the hope as well of local bookstore owner Pat Kehde, who joined the ACLU over concerns about the Patriot Act.

As owner of The Raven Bookstore, she’s concerned about Section 215 that she said gives the federal government a license to find out what books people have bought or read in the hopes of foretelling criminal behavior.

“They might as well read tea leaves,” Kehde said.

“You used to have to show that the bookstore had a connection to a foreign agent,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington Legislative Office in Washington, D.C. “They basically eliminated that requirement. And now the FBI can get an order with a very low standard.”

Kehde said educating people is one of the key roles of the Douglas County ACLU and its nine-member board.

She expects more forums in 2007 similar to last October’s forum “Sacrificing Civil Liberties For Security: Do We Risk Both?” held at the Lawrence Public Library.