On Constitution Day, A Reminder About Liberty and Eternal Vigilance

Two very recent episodes involving basic constitutional rights demonstrate the power of an informed and active citizenry successfully confronting government fear-mongering and overreach.

The first happened this week in Irving, Texas, where 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested after bringing a homemade clock to school to show his engineering teacher.  Government officials insisted that Ahmed’s clock might have been a bomb.

Distressingly, Ahmed claims that his interrogation occurred despite the fact that he asked to see his parents before answering any questions.  Police allegedly refused, and continued the interrogation anyway.  Ahmed was subsequently and inexplicably handcuffed, arrested, and transferred to a juvenile detention facility, still without access to his parents.

The public reaction against Ahmed’s treatment was swift and voluminous. Facebook and Google executives offered the aspiring engineer trips to their offices.  MIT representatives extended similar opportunities.  Even President Obama got in on the act, inviting Ahmed to bring his clock to the White House. #IStandWithAhmed quickly became the cause of the day on social media.

Government officials only fed the frenzy by issuing defenses such as “He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation,” and that officials had “followed protocol.”  The school even sent home a letter defending itself for protecting students and assuring parents that their children were safe from a threat that never was.

When asked to explain why police refused to allow Ahmed to speak with his parents or a lawyer during his interrogation, police chief simply said that he “[didn’t] have answers.”

That answer isn’t good enough.

A minor child should not be interrogated by police in the absence of some adult who can protect him.  And no person, regardless of age, should be interrogated after requesting the assistance of adult counsel, whether it’s a parent (who is treated as a legal representative of a minor child in a great many contexts) or a lawyer.

School officials and police clearly have an interest in protecting the safety of the children under their supervision, but public officials also have an obligation to respect the Constitutional rights of everyone under their authority. Even under the most charitable interpretation of the facts, the interrogation was out of bounds.  Once it became obvious that there was no bomb and the investigation shifted to whether the whole thing was either a hoax or a misunderstanding, any conceivable threat had evaporated.

In some areas of the law, policy against allowing minors to waive their rights is so absolute as to produce absurdity, such as when age of consent laws are used to prosecute sexting teenagers for production and possession of child pornography (to wit: pictures of themselves).

Yet when it comes to protecting minor children from the immense power of the police and prosecutorial machinery of the state, children are routinely left defenseless. No child should have to face the government alone.

The government’s behavior throughout this case invites allegations of racial profiling, but profiling isn’t doing all of the work here.  Students of all ethnicities and faiths have been subjected to violations of their rights in school settings by government officials.  From strip searches for ibuprofen to suspensions over pop tarts shaped like guns, to random, warrantless searches, American school students are routinely at risk of having their rights violated by overly broad policies or overzealous government officials.

The Supreme Court once said that public school students do not “shed their rights … at the schoolhouse gate,” but all too often school officials and police officers use tactics designed for hardened criminals to circumvent the rights of students.

Given the tremendous outpouring of support, it’s likely that Ahmed Mohamed will be made whole from this experience.  The same cannot necessarily be said for the great many other students who have fallen victim to overzealous school policies and law enforcement.

Ahmed’s case does, however, highlight the value of an informed and activist citizenry willing to hold government officials accountable when the legal system will not.

The second episode happened yesterday, when the Lebanon, New Hampshire Library Board of Trustees rejected attempts by the Department of Homeland Security and the local police department to convince the library overseers to shut down a Tor node created in the Kilton Library as part of the Library Freedom Project. As the White River Junction, Vermont Valley News reported

The Lebanon Library Board of Trustees let stand its unanimous June decision to devote some of the library’s excess bandwidth to a node, or “relay,” for Tor, after a full room of about 50 residents and other interested members of the public expressed their support for Lebanon’s participation in the system at a meeting Tuesday night.

“With any freedom there is risk,” library board Chairman Francis Oscadal said. “It came to me that I could vote in favor of the good … or I could vote against the bad.

“I’d rather vote for the good because there is value to this.”

Other libraries in the region may follow Kilton’s example

Reading (Vt.) Public Library Trustee Mildred Waterfall came to Lebanon for Tuesday’s meeting and said the Reading board will discuss hosting a Tor relay at its next meeting.

A former teacher, Waterfall likened the idea of taking Tor away to prevent the criminal activity of a few to a new teacher punishing the entire class for one student’s bad behavior.

“That’s what it feels like,” she said before the meeting.

The experience of Kilton Library employee  Maria Ortiz in her native Columbia gave her a special appreciation for the Lebanon Library Board of Trustees decision

“Democracy in South America is very powerful on paper, but in America it’s powerful not only on paper,” Ortiz said.

She said the library’s support for freedom of speech “made me proud to be here.”

This local victory for free speech and technological innovation is part of the larger national debate between those like FBI Director James Comey who want to compromise privacy and encryption in the name of “national security” and those who argue that strong encryption and privacy safeguards are our best defense against malicious actors, whether individuals or foreign powers. The latter argument may at last be gaining some ground with senior Obama administration officials.

It’s terrific that President Obama is going to host Ahmed at the White House. That meeting would be all the more powerful if he also invited the sponsors of the Library Freedom Project so they can talk to Ahmed about his constitutional rights in the digital age. It’s possible that the President might learn something too.