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Tapping into the Past to Protect Civil Liberties Today

Look carefully at the language in the recently introduced Washington Fourth Amendment Protection Act to push back against NSA spying and you will find a little nugget of history with practical application today.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 counts among the most disgusting acts ever passed by Congress. This so-called law denied a black person accused of escaping slavery any semblance of due process. A white man could essentially drag a black man or woman south into slavery on the power of his word. In 1855, Massachusetts passed Personal Liberty laws to hinder southern apprehension of fugitive slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act. The Massachusetts law called for the removal of any state official who aided in the return of runaway slaves and disbarment of attorneys assisting in fugitive slave rendition. Another section authorized impeachment of state judges who accepted federal commissioner positions authorizing them to prosecuted fugitive slaves.

Fast forward to today.

The NSA represents another gross violation of basic personal liberties. The appalling nature of its incessant spying on virtually everybody in the world certainly doesn’t rise to the level of fugitive slave rendition, but it it does grossly violate the Constitution and our basic right to privacy. The Fourth Amendment Protection Act seeks to hinder NSA spying by denying material support at the state level. If you look closely at the bill introduced in Washington by Rep. David Taylor (R-Moxee) and Rep Rep. Luis Moscoso (D- Mountlake Terrace), you will find a nod to those brave state lawmakers who stood up against the federal slavery machine.

If you read HB2272 closely, you will find the following provision.

Any agent or employee of this state…who knowingly violate[s] the prohibitions in section 3 of this act is deemed to have resigned any commission from the state of Washington which he or she may possess, his or her office is deemed vacant, and he or she is forever ineligible to any office of trust, honor, or emolument under the laws of this state.

Now look at the Massachusetts Personal Liberty Act of 1855.

Any person who shall grant any certificate under or by virtue of the acts of congress, mentioned in the preceding section, shall be deemed to have resigned any commission from the Commonwealth which he may possess, his office shall be deemed vacant, and he shall be forever thereafter ineligible to any office of trust, honor or emolument under the laws of this Commonwealth.

Massachusetts lawmakers used virtually the same text when banning their state from helping the federal government catch runaway slaves as Taylor and Moscoso used in their legislation to thwart unconstitutional spying. The Fourth Amendment Protection Act follows in a grand tradition, and while spying doesn’t compare to the horrors of slavery, northern resistance to the draconian Fugitive Slave Acts teaches us valuable lessons we can use today.


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