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Freedom isn't free

The Maine Civil Liberties Union celebrated its 40th anniversary last night with an awards banquet attended by I'm-not-sure-how-many people, including some of the group's founding members, as well as people who had just joined. (And a few journalist-types, like me.)

It was a nice time - the chicken-and-scallop pairing was particularly good, as far as banquet food goes (though the woman next to me had to wait rather a while for the veggie option - pasta primavera - but when it arrived, she said it was tasty).

The keynote address - after the awards honoring the group's past presidents, staff, and volunteers - was from Caroline Frederickson, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington DC legislative office. She had a few stark reminders that made our nicely sated bellies turn, just a bit.

In a short speech including quotations from great American thinkers (Thomas Jefferson, Bob Dylan, Thomas Paine, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), she reminded us that "just because George W. and his ilk are kicked to the curb does not mean all will be well with the world."

She also invoked Gregor Samsa in Kafka's Metamorphosis to describe Bush 43: "He went to sleep a compassionate conservative and woke up a cockroach."

Insects aside, the best way we can "patch the tattered cloth of the Constitution" (a nicely mixed metaphor if ever there was one), she said, was to take Paine's advice and guard even our enemies from oppression, lest that oppression seep into our own lives. We can see, over the past seven and a half years that we have oppressed our enemies, taking away their liberties, even their human dignity, that we have begun to lose some parts of ourselves as a consequence.

Frederick did see hope, and tried to take advantage of timing by urging us to action just as the coffee was being poured to give us a kick of caffeine. The US House recently rejected the extension of the "Protect America Act" - which should be called the "Wiretap Americans Act" - which is good. But the House is poised to make a back-room deal that would grant telephone companies immunity if they did, as we all suspect they did, illegally give the private phone records of millions of Americans to the government in some sort of crazy plan the feds thought might protect us from terror by taking away one of the few shreds of privacy we have left.

Sure, we have e-mail addresses like MyFullLegal.NameIsThis.AndMyBirthday.IsThis@gmail.com, and we post our ages and hometowns on MySpace and Facebook. That's our right - but it is not the same thing to give our personal information to private companies, or even to the public, as it is to allow the government to take our private information, with or without our knowledge.

A key difference, as civil libertarians everywhere point out, is that private companies and private citizens can't lock you up in jail. The government can. But more than that, it is the principle of the thing - it is our right as private citizens to determine who can and who can't have access to our personal information. It is not the government's right to take that information from us.

We are free, as individuals in a free society, to give away the farm, if we choose to. But the government should not - does not have the right to - force us to do so against our will.

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