Threats to our freedoms: past, present and future |

Threats to our freedoms: past, present and future

Hal Sundin
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
As I See It

Our Constitution and first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, presumably guarantee us certain freedoms. But those freedoms have been challenged in the past, and face present and future challenges.

As early as 1798, our First Amendment free speech right was violated by President John Adams’ Sedition Act, which declared it a crime “to write, print, utter, or publish … any false, scandalous, and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President, with intent to defame … or to bring them … into contempt or disrepute, or to excite … the good people of the United States.” The act expired in 1801 with the election of Thomas Jefferson.

In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, several hundred newspapers were closed, and eight major newspapers were banned from the U.S. Mail for criticizing war policies. President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, denying prisoners arrested as alleged Confederate sympathizers the basic right to challenge their incarceration.

In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson’s Espionage Act was enacted to protect us from “infiltrating German spies” who had allegedly set criminal intrigues against our national unity, and thereby had sacrificed their right to civil liberties.

And a year later, Congress criminalized “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language” against the American form of government, the Constitution, the flag or the military.

Early in 1942, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and a little over a year after his ringing “Four Freedoms” speech to Congress, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, calling for the forcible removal and internment of 120,000 people of full or partial Japanese ancestry (two-thirds of whom were American citizens) from the West Coast states – but not from Hawaii.

Their property was taken by the government and sold for less than 30 percent of its value, with compensation paid to the Japanese over 20 years following the end of World War II (equivalent to 15 percent of its value, factoring in inflation). An additional insult was the $20,000 “restitution” ($2,146 in 1942 dollars) paid to survivors 50 years after the crime.

President Roosevelt also invoked President Adams’s 1798 Alien Enemies Act, requiring the registration of more than 750,000 people of Japanese, Italian and German ancestry – U.S. citizens or not – as enemy aliens, limiting their movements to five miles and daylight hours, and prohibiting them from owning guns, cameras or shortwave radios.

The Cold War (1947-1975) created mass hysteria and precipitated a rash of violations of Americans’ personal freedoms, leading to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which compiled dossiers on 1 million suspects, ruining many loyal Americans’ professional lives.

Then along came Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunts. Seventeen thousand federal and private employees were dismissed and had their careers destroyed by mere allegations that they were never allowed to see or challenge. The National Security Agency intercepted millions of telegrams, and the CIA and FBI secretly opened and photographed 380,000 first-class letters.

After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, Congress passed the Patriot Act, expanding the powers of federal agencies through a secret court that issues clandestine warrants that do not require probable cause as set forth in the Fourth Amendment.

President Bush secretly ordered the National Security Agency to intercept Americans’ telephone and Internet communications, and to issue administrative subpoenas without suspicion of a crime and with no judicial oversight. Fifty thousand of these NSA letters are issued annually, with a lifetime gag order.

And in January 2010, by a 5-4 decision in the Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission case, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively handed corporations control over the election process by declaring them “persons,” giving them the right to pour unlimited and concealed amounts of money into the campaign funds of their lackeys through front organizations.

Throughout our history, we have steadfastly expanded voting rights, first including nonproperty-owning males, then African-Americans, women, and 18-21 year olds. But today many GOP-controlled state legislatures are attempting to obstruct the voting rights of certain groups of Americans by requiring government-issued photo identification in order to vote (like the poll tax that was used in the South to keep blacks from voting).

This could affect as many as 10 percent of American citizens – blacks, Hispanics, Asians, low-income elderly, students and young adults – all of whom are less likely to vote Republican (as thousands in Florida were disenfranchised for the flimsiest reasons in the 2000 election).

We must constantly be on guard to thwart what are sure to be future threats to our precious freedoms.

– “As I See It” appears on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at

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