Encouraging local governments, organizations and individuals to oppose, through the use of education and resources, federal legislation that endangers human rights

In the United States, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC) creates tools and resources to help local advocates of the Bill of Rights educate members of local governments and communities about how federal anti­terrorism legislation and policies violate their rights. Many of the local groups work with their city, town or county governments to formally register opposition to violations of civil liberties, passing resolutions or ordinances up­holding the Bill of Rights. These ordinances instruct local law enforcement and other government employees not to cooperate with requests to violate residents’ constitutional rights.

The USA Patriot Act was signed into law in late 2001. It created a new crime, “domestic terrorism,” and gave the federal government greater rights to wiretap phones; monitor emails; survey medical, financial, library and student records; and enter homes and offices without prior notification. Under this Act and other legislation, non­citizens can be deported and detained without judicial appeal. BORDC believes these provisions violate key civil and political rights provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

Recognizing that much of the work authorized by the Act and other antiterrorism policies and legislation is ulti­mately carried out by local law enforcement, a group of advocates (who would eventually create BORDC) held a community-wide forum in Northampton, Massachusetts. They circulated a petition to gain support for a city council resolution opposing key components of the legislation and requesting that local law enforcement refrain from carrying out any order that violates the civil liberties of community members. They received additional support by inviting businesses, individuals and organizations to participate in public forums. Many joined the activists, pro­viding funding and helping distribute the petition, rallying support for the resolution at city council meetings, and lending it credibility by demonstrating its broad support and appeal.

The coalition convinced the city council president to sponsor a resolution. BORDC then began encouraging simi­lar efforts in neighboring towns and across the nation. Their website has been central to their organizing efforts. It explains in detail the steps taken to educate citizens and gain public support for passing municipal resolutions. It contains sample resolutions, petitions, press releases, fliers, FAQs and news articles. It also describes how their public forums were organized and provides alternative campaign approaches.

Resolutions have been passed in 267 cities, towns and counties and in three states (by 2004), demonstrating growing momentum to revoke provisions of the legislation that could have an impact on human rights. The combined population of these “civil liberties safe zones” has topped 47 million. BORDC’s website also offers information to help students and faculty, religious groups, unions and professional groups organize.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

As demonstrated here, local organizations and local government can work together to resist legislation made on the federal level.

BORDC members began by mobilizing for change in their own community and then decided to make their efforts national, sharing their experience with other communities. They helped cities and communities recog­nize that people can take a stand against deteriorating human rights, sending a strong signal to the national government. Although a particularly potent form of resistance in a political system with delineated and sepa­rated authority, this can be adapted to systems with even vertical political structures, though the risks to local authorities may be much higher.