Where does it end?
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peacefully assemble, and to petition the Government for the redress of grievances.”
Amendment 1 to the Constitution of the United States
Simple, bold, and brilliant. Following the lengthy debates and passionate arguments about the structure of our new federal government, the Congress ratified the first 10 amendments – the Bill of Rights – to the Constitution on December 15, 1791.
The first of these is arguably the most important; this is the bedrock principle of our republic. A quick history lesson reminds us that our Founders started out as revolutionaries, people who had learned the truly hard way what happens when your own government decides to silence the voices of dissent.
The words in this amendment have been repeated over the years as a part of some of the most contentious, yet important, public debates our society has heard. Journalists, preachers, and protestors alike find comfort in the protections covered in the First Amendment.
The events of September 11, 2001, had a significant impact on our perceptions of personal freedoms and the need for security. Some suggest that constitutional protections prevented the government from putting the Saudi Arabian terrorist plotters on the homeland security radar.
This seems like this will be a perpetual argument: Do we prioritize our freedom to assemble and protest, or do we value a feeling of security over freedom of expression?
This essential argument over our future and our freedom made its way to my doorstep. Not one I went seeking. More like one that came looking.
Turn the clock back to July 2005. According to state police files, a member of the Frederick Progressive Action Committee (FredPAC), wearing an employee uniform shirt of a local hotel, ran his vehicle up on the curb in front of that same hotel.
Frederick County Sheriff’s deputies, working a security detail for a biotechnology conference, stopped the vehicle and questioned the driver. He first told deputies he worked for the hotel, but after further questioning admitted he did not. The shirt was returned to the hotel, and no charges were filed.
The driver of the vehicle asserted two things: First, he did not steal the uniform shirt; he borrowed it from a friend who worked for the hotel; and, secondly, he did mean to disrupt the conference by driving up on the curb. His intention in attending was to distribute flyers; the curb thing was a result of his inexperience as a driver.
A spokesman for the Maryland State Police (MSP) cited this incident as the prompt for an undercover investigation of FredPAC. The fear was that maybe the uniform shirt was intended to provide access to the conference, but for what purpose no one has yet offered.
On September 29, 2005, an undercover state trooper, working under a program designed to target investigatory resources on potential terrorists, attended an organizational meeting of FredPAC at the Friends Meeting House on North Market Street in Frederick.
According to the spokesman for the State Police, this officer witnessed nothing out of the ordinary and, following the meeting, he recommended the case be closed. It wasn’t until much later that the existence of this program would come to light, and some fundamental questions arise.
The MSP spokesman, in a press release, told us that the investigation into the FredPAC group’s conduct was prompted by that July 2005 hotel incident. The written record suggests otherwise, as the files on several FredPAC members were opened at least three weeks before, in mid-June. So far, the Maryland State Police have either been unable, or unwilling, to resolve that discrepancy.
MSP didn’t restrict their undercover investigation to FredPAC, either. Undercover officers also investigated a number of death penalty opponents and anti-war activists, too. So far, none of the people subjected to this secret scrutiny appear to meet any reasonable definition of a terror suspect.
All of those investigated were entered into a database created for the purpose of tracking terror suspects. Once the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) discovered the program’s existence, they started pressuring the state police to release the records.
Initially, the MSP refused to comply, citing security. Then, as media outlets started to catch on, MSP relented and offered to allow those who had been the subject of a secret investigation to view the files that had been maintained. Even after being outed, the MSP was trying to control how much information was shared with the subjects of the probe.
A statewide commission, chaired by former Maryland Attorney General Steven Sachs, conducted a lengthy study of the program. The findings suggest that the process used to decide who to investigate was flawed, as was the decision to enter individuals into a database accessible by other law enforcement agencies.
One of the most troubling aspects is the lack of answers. If you’re wondering who ordered the creation of the program, how the suspects were determined, and who decided to dispatch the undercover investigators, you’re out of luck. The Sachs Commission was unable to find answers to those questions.
Does Maryland law need to change? Do we provide enough of an opportunity for a citizen who has been the subject of an undercover investigation to satisfy themselves that there record has been expunged and eliminated? These are questions that will be examined during the upcoming legislative session.
The balance between a citizen’s right to assemble and peacefully protest and the government’s obligation to protect society from terrorists has been tested here in Maryland. Let’s hope that the scales tip in favor of the citizens. If it goes the other way, one wonders where it might end!