In the furious debate over the USA Patriot Act, frequent reference is made to the First Amendment of the Constitution. The president’s critics maintain that the Patriot Act’s intrusive practices, including wiretapping, monitoring library use and more, amount to limitations on our freedom of speech. Armed with these new tools, Uncle Sam becomes an Orwellian Big Brother whose uninvited presence constrains the free and open exchange of ideas.
But there is a real-life dilemma that this and similar measures in the past have sought to address. Faced with genuine threats to our security, we’re asked to give up some of our freedom. Accordingly, lawmakers have agreed to let the president listen in — provided he can convince a judge that it’s necessary.
The debate isn’t limited to freedom of speech. There is another, perhaps more pertinent section of the Constitution — the Fourth Amendment, which warns the government not to infringe the citizen’s right to privacy. Here is the verbatim text of that amendment:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
This Fourth Amendment is a restatement of the old saying that a man’s home is his castle. Any outside, uninvited presence is unwelcome. But — and this is a big but — if government at any level has good reason to believe that someone’s home is being used to manufacture weapons, it has an obligation to act. Hence the need for a compromise, balancing society’s rights and the individual’s. Searches may be permissible, but first get a court’s permission.
It all comes down to the matter explored in depth by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his seminal 1762 essay, “The Social Contract.” Every individual is born free, Rousseau wrote, but that freedom is quickly limited by government, whose task it is to protect one person from another. Unchecked, each of us will seek to indulge our appetites at the other’s expense. Under the social contract, your freedom ends where my nose begins.
President Bush, of course, hasn’t even waited for that nicety. It turns out he has been tapping phone calls without bothering to seek court approval. Big Brother always thinks he knows best.