Columns

Gonzales ’18: The perversion of our rights

By
Opinions Columnist
Friday, January 30, 2015

Amidst the heat of continued Republican opposition, President Obama has faced many a stalemate and government shut-down. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said it best before the 2012 election: “The single most important thing (Republicans) want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” 

Gridlock and polarization have defined Obama’s presidency and affected the government’s ability to operate efficiently. Unfortunately, the American people and not Obama have taken the brunt of these Red v. Blue standoffs, and, as a result, there has been a continuous degradation of American rights.

While Obama, in the 2015 State of the Union, gave us brief hope in our political system, preaching ambitious, forward-thinking propositions — such as free community college, faster and freer internet and updated infrastructure — we must recognize the misdirection and look instead toward the imminent and egregious violations of constitutional rights taking root in our society. These violations are neither Democratic nor Republican in nature; they are the result of polarized politics and unfounded fears of potential terrorist attacks.

Recent controversy over the National Security Agency’s mass data collection comes to the forefront of this discussion. If our right to privacy was constitutionally established in the 1965 Supreme Court case Griswald v. Connecticut — as well as earlier in the 1961 case Mapp v. Ohio — why is the privacy of our online records and phone calls open to interpretation?

Following the 1965 landmark case, in which the Supreme Court concluded that the right to privacy is protected in the Constitution, Justice Arthur Goldberg wrote a concurring opinion and used the Ninth Amendment to invoke support for the ruling. Journalist and author Brian Doherty, who has written many books on the topic, writes in “Radicals for Capitalism” that the Ninth Amendment “specifically roots the Constitution in a natural rights tradition that says we are born with more rights than any constitution could ever list or specify.”

Therefore, if anything, our rights should and must expand upon precedent and not detract from it — as seen with the growing support for LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and the rights of undocumented immigrants. In keeping with the long-standing American tradition of unequivocal support for the rights of “We the people,” it is our duty to stand up for the under fire right to privacy.

I am not wholly opposed to operations conducted by the NSA that promote the safety and well-being of our citizens. I am principally opposed to unrestricted access to my records in the absence of any legislation that specifies rules and boundaries. There need to be restrictions and federal regulations placed upon the record collections of the NSA, combined with bipartisan legislation that protects citizens from the oppression and tyranny that can result from the government’s access to all of our records.

In addition to the government and its unabated collection of data, there exists a group of organizations engaging in similar practices unbeknownst to the general public. And, worst of all, they are institutions that promote progress and intellectual growth — ideas that should point to the protection of our rights. Instead, these organizations violate them.

Colleges and universities collect not only transcripts, but also almost any other data they can get their hands on. As Jonah Newman wrote in a Sept. 25 Marketplace article, schools collect information when students “take a book out of the library,” “log on to the campus Wi-Fi network,” “swipe their student ID,” “buy lunch at the dining hall,” or “post an assignment on a class discussion board and at almost every other point throughout their day.” The real problem arises, Newman contends, when the question of who owns this data is brought into play — is it the students or the colleges?

No one truly knows, and the legality is disputed since the Family Educational and Privacy Rights Act protects only “the privacy of student education records,” according to the U.S. Department of Education’s website. Online “education records” are left in that nasty grey area. 

Unfortunately, these transgressions against our rights extend to the university we call home. Yes, for those Brown students who use Google Apps for Education — which includes Brown email — the University reserves the “ability to monitor, use or disclose data” and “Google provides Brown the ability to do so,” according to the University’s website.

For a school that boasts progressive values, this policy presents not only an intrusion into our privacy, but also a crime against what we stand for and fight for on campus. Regrettably, this is our current state of affairs, and the future looks bleak with a Republican-controlled Congress that champions Democratic losses over passing bills.

A recent bill in the Senate authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, and supported by the Obama administration along with major tech companies — Google, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo — proposed to end the NSA’s “collecting telephone metadata” while still allowing analysts to look into the phone records of suspects after receiving a court order, the New York Times reported Nov. 18. Sadly, Sen. McConnell, R-KY, led a successful Republican campaign against the Democrat-endorsed bill, which required 60 votes and failed marginally — 58-42, with 41 Republicans opposing. With such gridlock on Capitol Hill, the petty clashes of our elected officials are hurting the American people and their rights.

Though the Republicans defeated a proposed bill that would protect our right to privacy, the Obama administration and the Democrats are not without fault. Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, asked then-Attorney General Eric Holder if Obama could authorize a targeted attack on an American citizen on American soil. Holder replied that the Obama administration could legally use military force “for incapacitating a terrorist threat,” whether or not it was on American soil, the Huffington Post reported last spring.

Paul proposed the hypothetical in the wake of drone warfare and the possibility of military intervention on our home soil against our own citizens. At first glance, this may appear to be a debate over the limits of executive authority. But this issue in fact points to a deeply perturbing possibility — a situation in which citizens suspected of planning to commit terrorism are murdered with military force without the right to a fair trial.

Our right to the due process of law is not actively under attack, but it is threatened. Can we truly feel safe at home when so many of our constitutional rights are under attack by legislators in the name of national protection and the threat of terrorism?

I wholeheartedly believe in the interests of national security, but unless there is a direct, imminent threat or war on an international scale, I stand behind the protection and expansion of our individual rights. While many acquiesce to the recent trend of curtailing our fundamental rights, I do not. A violation of one of our liberties is a violation of all of our liberties.

Graham Gonzales ‘18 is concentrating in economics and political science. He can be reached at graham_gonzales@brown.edu