L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 273, May 30, 2004
"You can fool some of the people all of the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on."
President George W. Bush, speaking at a Gridiron Club dinner, Washington, D.C., March 2001
Show and Tell Me Everything
Special to TLE
It likely comes as no real surprise to anybody that some of my friends consider me the "go to" person whenever some question of civil liberties arises. So when the phone rang last week and a friend told me he needed my opinion on a matter of rights, I was ready to tell him what I knew, or to steer him in the direction of an appropriate web site for more information. But every time I think I'm prepared, it turns out that the forces of authority have gone just a little further than I could have expected, and I must overcome my disgust just to deal with some matter that should never have become an issue in the first place.
My friend has a couple of dogs. They're friendly and gregarious animals, so it made perfect sense that a local teacher would think they could play part of a lesson plan that would delight the average second grader. Because the dogs like that sort of thing, and because my friend is a nice guy, he agreed to bring the dogs in to the school for an hour or so one day. But upon his agreement, he was advised that he'd have to undergo a criminal background check and provide his fingerprints to the local sheriff accordingly. And that's where he balked.
"Why do they need my fingerprints?" he asked. Well, the short answer is to facilitate the background check.
"But why do they need to do a background check?" he wanted to know.
I'm well aware that there are some professions that do require background checks. Whether for good or for ill (I'm frankly inclined toward the latter), those who deal with children extensively are among those professions. The elementary school teacher who had asked about the dogs, for example, would have undergone such a background check before being hired. But my friend was only going to be in the school building on a one-time basis and for a brief while, and would be monitored by the teacher the entire time he was there! So why did they need to do a background check?
I don't often deal with schools, day care centers, or the like, and so I wasn't terribly conversant with state law where this kind of thing is concerned. "Hold on," I told my friend. "Let me find out."
Another friend of mine happens to be a member of one of the local school boards, so I asked him about the requirements for background checks. He said that all of the schools do them on permanent employees, and that they're also required to conduct investigations into regular volunteers (such as coaches) who could have one-on-one contact with students in an unsupervised setting. I told him why I was asking, and he advised that state law only provides for the minimum requirements, and that individual schools and districts could go beyond those requirements if they so chose, except in matters where they were expressly forbidden from doing so.
"The school you're talking about has gone a little far, I think," he said. But it was clear from his explanation that, since the background check requirement for anyone setting foot in the classroom for any period of time wasn't prohibited, it was perfectly acceptable for the school to mandate those checks.
My friend still wanted to know, "Do I have to do this?"
No, he doesn't. But the school may be unwilling to make any exceptions to the rules it has decided to enforce. The question isn't whether or not he has to do this, but whether or not it's worth doing this.
"Well, once the background check is done, it's done, right?"
Yes and no. Once it's done, his fingerprints and the results of his background check will remain in the state's criminal databaseand later be appended to federal databases (such as the FBI's fingerprint database and potentially the nominally civilian-operated MATRIX database). The fact that he's not a criminal, nor is he charged with or even suspected of a crime, has nothing to do with whether or not his personal data will be held for potential future identification purposes, just like that of real criminals.
Of course, it didn't take long for the most damaging possibility of all to strike him: "What if there's another guy with my same name? What if my fingerprints or something are just similar enough to some that were taken from a crime scene? What then?"
Well, in that case, he's in a good deal of trouble, at least for awhile. Government databases are notoriously error-prone, and getting such errors corrected is often nigh unto impossible. Much as in the case of perfectly innocent Americans who have the same name as someone else who happens to be on the government's "Don't Fly List," my friend could conceivably find himself detained and questioned on an occasional basis, some occasions of which might not be very pleasant. (Think it couldn't happen? It already has. A Portland, Oregon lawyer was detained in connection with the terrorist train bombings in Spain after his fingerprints were allegedly found; he was later released after authorities in Spain found the fingerprints were actually those of an Algerian. Despite his release, the lawyer remains under surveillance.)
"Would you do it?" he wanted to know.
"Not in a million years," I told him.
"Okay," he said. "Thanks for your advice."
I'm always glad to help with this kind of thing in any way I can, and I told him so. I also referred him to a web site where there are some very nicely written arguments in favor of privacy, and why capitulating to the demands of authoritieseven when we don't have anything to hideis a bad idea. (For those of you who also have an interest, I'm talking about the CASPIAN [http://www.nocards.org/] web site.)
"Man," he said, just before we ended our conversation. "The teacher's gonna be really mad at me if I don't do this."
Maybe. But nobody ever said that maintaining privacy, dignity, self-respect, or liberty is necessarily easy. And the fact that a decent, law-abiding guy with a couple of friendly dogs won't show up for a second-grade classbecause doing so would mean sacrificing some of his most basic principles, not to mention abrogating some of his unalienable rightsmight be a far more important lesson for the kids to learn anyway. It's just too bad more adults don't get it.
Is America becoming a police state? Friends of liberty need to know.
Some say the U.S. is already a police state. Others watch the news for signs that their country is about to cross an indefinable line. Since September 11, 2001, the question has become more urgent. When do roving wiretaps, random checkpoints, mysterious "detentions," and military tribunals cross over from being emergency measures to being the tools of a government permanently and irrevocably out of control?
The State vs. the People examines these crucial issues. But first, it answers this fundamental question: "What is a police state?"
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