FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Nearly two dozen cities around the country have passed resolutions urging federal authorities to respect the civil rights of those cities' residents when fighting terrorism. Efforts to pass similar measures are under way in more than 60 other places.
Although the resolutions are largely symbolic, many of them provide some legal justification for local authorities to resist cooperating in the federal war on terrorism when they deem civil liberties and constitutional rights are being compromised.
Most of the resolutions have passed in liberal bastions such as Boulder, Colo.; Santa Fe, N.M.; Cambridge, Mass.; and Berkeley, Calif., where opposition to government policy has long been a tradition. But less ideological places have also acted, with more localities considering it, from big cities such as Chicago to smaller towns like Grants Pass, Ore.
Many communities are getting help from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a grass-roots group in Florence, Mass.
"People are very, very willing and committed to do everything reasonably possible about terrorist threats," said Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way, a nonprofit group that works for constitutional protections. "But there is a growing concern about how the executive branch is handling this, a unilateral assertion of power that, in many instances, intrudes on people's privacy and is carried out in a very secretive manner."
Art Babbott, the City Council member who sponsored a resolution in Flagstaff that passed last week after intense debate, said: "We've been singing the same song in this country for more than 200 years. It's a very good song, and I want to keep singing it. I'm very leery of changing the lyrics."
Supporters of the resolutions say the measures have grown out of a belief that the Patriot Act of 2001, the Homeland Security Act passed this year and a series of executive orders have given the federal government too much muscle in its war against terrorism at the expense of average Americans, especially Muslims. The Patriot Act expands government powers in such matters as electronic surveillance, search warrants and detention. The Homeland Security Act created a Cabinet department for national defense.
In most places, the resolutions carry no legal weight, merely affirming civil rights as federal authorities intensify antiterrorist efforts in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. But resolutions passed by some towns, such as Amherst, Mass., have a sharper tone, going so far as to direct city personnel not to help federal or state officials in activities that could be considered a civil rights or liberties violation.
The Flagstaff measure, which passed with a City Council vote of 4-3, includes one part written so ambiguously that members on both sides of the issue said it could give the Police Department and other city departments a legal basis to delay or withhold cooperation with higher authorities. To supporters of the measure, that is a good thing. Opponents predicted that it could have dangerous consequences.
Nancy Talanian, co-director of the Florence group, said conflicts between local and federal authorities have not emerged. However, in Amherst, faculty members at the University of Massachusetts recently protested the FBI's questioning of Musaddak J. Alhabeeb, an Iraqi-born associate professor of economics, over his views of the Bush administration's plans for war against Iraq.
But no conflicts over the new laws should arise, said Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the Justice Department, insisting that they are entirely constitutional. "We are still living under the Constitution," Corallo said, asserting that protection of civil liberties is built into all antiterrorism legislation.