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"If you don't get those cameras out of my face, I'm gonna go 8.6 on the Richter scale with gastric emissions that'll clear this room!" — Traficant to photojournalists covering his House ethics subcomittee hearing.

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Statement of Ira Glasser, ACLU Executive Director
May 2, 1995

WASHINGTON -- The first 100 days of the 104th Congress were notable not only for the speed with which legislation, some of it quite radical, was adopted, but also for the extent to which anti-civil liberties measures gained ground -- much of it unnoticed by the press and the public as the nation focused on the Contract With America's more economic aspects. But the ACLU noticed. Each day seemed to bring a new assault on another fundamental and hard won right. Our efforts to prevent the unravelling of core civil liberties protections were largely rebuffed, as Republicans and Democrats alike seemed to fall lockstep behind the House Speaker and his reactionary agenda, often without hearings. Even the attempt by one Congressman to insert the language of the Fourth Amendment into a piece of crime legislation during debate was overwhelmingly rejected by the House.

With the next 100 days now upon us, we face continuing assaults -- on the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, the independence and integrity of the federal judiciary -- as those elected by the people to push through economic reforms use their power to downsize the Constitution, a result we do not believe was intended by the electorate last November. Using diffuse public anxiety and anger as a scalpel to excise rights they have never supported, the neo-authoritarian backlashers of the 104th Congress seem bent on erasing the civil liberties achievements of the past forty years. They have called for constitutional amendments that would permit governmental sponsorship of religion and punishment of people who disrespect the flag. They have called for laws that would permit and encourage warrantless searches and seizures; end affirmative action remedies for race and gender discrimination; deny women the right to choose abortion; deny people whose rights have been violated effective access to court remedies, and punish the children of unemployed parents without addressing the lack of jobs, education and job training.

This volatile social climate, which provides such fertile ground for scapegoating and repression, is itself a product of the explosive technological advancement and economic restructuring of the past two decades. During this time, Americans have seen a sharp rise in wage inequality. In 1979, white men with a college education earned 30 percent more than white men without a college degree. By 1989 that disparity had increased to 74 percent! At the same time, manufacturing jobs declined sharply, while service jobs, which required considerable technological education and skills, increased. Many fell by the wayside of a labor market that no longer needed them. Two wage earners became necessary for a family to earn what only one person had earned in the past. Underemployment and temporary employment became permanent fixtures, and many families found they could not afford health care or higher education for their children. Public opinion polls have begun to show that people are pessimistic about their economic future, and fear their children will be worse off than they are.

We have seen such tumultuous and unstable times before. Throughout the 1800s, as the industrial revolution rolled first across Europe and then the United States, the everyday lives of millions of people were upended. Before the economic benefits of industrialization raised the overall standard of living, large numbers of people were victims of economic marginalization, poverty and gross social and economic inequalities. This turbulence gave rise to a mean-spirited and punitive climate, in which repressive, anti-libertarian measures directed against working people and the poor were not only tolerated but welcomed. That is the true lesson of the Victorian era. Then, as now, the fear, anger and despair engendered by economic insecurity and anxiety about the future rendered many vulnerable to the scapegoating of the poor and the politically unpopular who were blamed as individuals for economic and moral problems that were systemic.

The response of the Clinton Administration to these events has been ambivalent and inadequate. Instead of providing leadership and coming to the defense of the victims of scapegoating, the President has too often joined the chorus. Instead of standing firmly behind the Bill of Rights, the President has more often stepped aside, giving credence to the attempts to pass the Flag Desecration Amendment and the School Prayer Amendment, and allowing unprincipled, reactionary attacks on civil rights to gain ground. Given the force of those reactionary attacks and the degree to which they are lavishly funded, Clinton's half-hearted approach to the defense of the Constitution does not bode well for the future of civil liberties.

We decided to hold this briefing today to share with representatives of the media our grave concern about the direction in which the country is heading. We will continue to provide the media with detailed accounts and analyses of pending legislation that impact on individual rights, and, as described elsewhere, intend to make this information more accessible to both the media and the public through our presence on the internet and America On Line.

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