The greatest civil rights challenge of our times is playing out in real time around us, the question of whether our rights of privacy will be forever taken away. The Constitution enshrines these rights in the Fourth Amendment, but in reality the Founders found them inalienable, rights that simply are and truly need not be specifically called out. That said, being practical men, they jotted down some things in the Bill of Rights just to be sure.
The Fourth Amendment was in fact adopted as a response to the British abuse of writs of assistance, a type of broad search order, during the American Revolution. Instead, per the Fourth, search and seizure should be limited in scope according to specific information agreed to by the issuing court. The concept goes deep into our collective Western history; Sir Edward Coke, in Semayne’s Case in 1604, famously stated “The house of every one is to him as his castle and fortress, as well for his defense against injury and violence as for his repose.” Semayne’s Case acknowledged that even the King did not have unbridled authority to intrude on his subjects’ dwellings.
Yet a mere two hundred some years later the whole thing is in shambles as evil men and women, people now in government who wouldn’t qualify as product in the Founder’s bed pans, seek to manipulate technology to blow away our rights. The Founders declared that we were free from the government searching our homes without a court-issued warrant, itself requiring the government to prove that such a search was necessary and limiting its scope. Various Court challenges along the way progressively interpreted the physical searches of the Founders’ days to include “searches” of mail, phone conversations and the like. Now, claiming as all tyrants do, that new rules are necessary to protect us (How does destroying our rights protect our rights?), the amazing ease of searching people electronically is being used to squash the concept of privacy. With snooping tools, packet sniffing, telecom cooperation and supercomputing, the government invades our privacy at will.
But so what? Doesn’t Santa himself keep a close eye on us, relegating every boy and girl to his own no-fly list, naughty or nice? If you have nothing to hide, why are you hiding?
The obvious first response is that in an era of paranoia, with “terrorists” lurking in every airport line and behind every Tweet, one does not wish to test his/her ideas of what to say or what to possess against secret government standards (if standards exist at all). For example, the New World Order agency TSA handcuffed and body searched a college student at the Philadelphia International Airport for several hours over the possession of Arabic language flashcards. The kid was returning from his home in a Philly suburb to Pomona College in California, where he was studying Arabic. Though he has used his language skills to work in Egypt through a State Department program, TSA cited as justification “his passport, with travel stamps from several Mideast countries.” TSA also noted the kid carried “a book critical of U.S. foreign policy.” In such a twisty-turney world of paranoid officials, only a fool would claim that she has nothing to hide and thus unrestrained search is not a threat.
But the more serious and far-reaching reason the Founders worried about unfettered search by the government is that protection of privacy underlies many of the other rights we cherish, most obviously those of the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech. Free speech includes the right to write something as well as the right to own and read something. Thought is expressed via “speech” (emails, conversations, Facebook) and searches of those media strike directly at the very notion of free speech. The Fourth Amendment is necessary to protect the First Amendment. It is no surprise that 24/7 surveillance was a key component of Orwell’s nightmare future in 1984.
So spare a thought (but don’t write it down for God’s sake!) this holiday season for those less fortunate than you, those without the right to privacy, those whose rights to free speech are being challenged by a government whose electronic ticklers reach deeper and deeper into their lives.
Wait, that’s us, isn’t it? Better watch out, better not cry Citizens. And watch your back.
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