The state of Bill of Rights

I recall being told as a child that the Bill of Rights was added to the US Constitution to ensure that people retained certain rights. The Bill of Rights Institute writes, the Bill of Rights were written “by James Madison in response to calls from several states for greater constitutional protection for individual liberties,” adding, “Federalists argued that the Constitution did not need a bill of rights, because the people and the states kept any powers not given to the federal government. Anti-Federalists held that a bill of rights was necessary to safeguard individual liberty.”

Among those rights recognized in the Bill of Rights are: the right to freedom of speech, the right to free exercise of religion, the right to peaceably assemble, the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, the right to bear arms, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizure without a warrant, protection from double-jeopardy, the right to a speedy trial and protections against being compelled to testify against yourself, and protection against cruel and unusual punishments. The ninth amendment also recognizes that the list of rights in the previous eight amendments are not exhaustive, stating, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

In the past 225 years since the Bill of Rights were ratified (December 15, 1791), various legislation and court rulings have sought to define what these various rights mean. Some have sought to define the rights in a broad manner, while most have sought to restrict the rights or outright deny the right exists as an individual right.

Among the most heinous legislation that has served to restrict rights, is the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 commonly called the “PATRIOT Act”. This act of Congress explicitly amended 11 existing Acts of Congress (Electronic Communications Privacy Act; Computer Fraud and Abuse Act; Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act; Money Laundering Control Act; Bank Secrecy Act; Right to Financial Privacy Act; Fair Credit Reporting Act; Immigration and Nationality Act; Victims of Crime Act of 1984; Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act) and, by default, portions of the Bill of Rights.

The “Patriot Act” has been rightfully criticized for its “authorization of indefinite detention of immigrants; searches through which law enforcement officers search a home or business without the owner’s or the occupant’s permission or knowledge; the expanded use of National Security Letters, which allows the FBI to search telephone, e-mail, and financial records without a court order; and the expanded access of law enforcement agencies to business records, including library and financial records.”

The Espionage Act has also, in recent years, increasingly been used to stifle rights of whistleblowers. And one of the most often used tools to limit rights, steal property and victimize people who aren’t causing any unjust harm to others, is the War on Drugs. These restrictions on rights did not happen over night, it’s taken over 200 years of incrementalism and carefully crafted language (eg. “protect against the terrorists”) to get people to accept these restrictions. I only hope the road to regaining these lost freedoms doesn’t take another 225 years!