A Massachusetts freedom agenda

We must push back against threats of a Trump presidency

THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION election unleashed forces of racism, sexism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and authoritarianism that, we now know, have been simmering just beneath the surface of the collective American polity.

But the election of a president who campaigned on threats to dismantle protections for the least among us also has mobilized millions of freedom-loving people to abandon the assumption that someone else—somehow—will save our republic. Simply put: it’s up to us.

Fortunately, when threats to liberty are greatest, the people of  Massachusetts are at our finest.

Throughout the Commonwealth, and nationwide, people are convening in groups, both large and small, to devise ways to stand together against threats to civil rights, civil liberties, our republican form of government, and the health of our planet.

While no one knows precisely what challenges a Trump presidency will bring, we do know that he campaigned on threats to create a mass deportation force to remove 11 million undocumented immigrants, to punish women for accessing abortion and to limit access to contraception, to ban the entry of Muslims into our country and to aggressively spy on those who live here, to reauthorize forms of torture, and to use libel laws to further weaken the press and stifle dissent.

These proposals are anti-American, wrong-headed, and unconstitutional. Stopping them will require local activists, advocates, elected officials, and ordinary people working together in a fight for fundamental freedoms and rights.

Massachusetts has a unique and critical role to play in this effort. We are the birthplace of the American Revolution; courage and freedom run deep in our veins. Our state constitution—our “Declaration of Rights”—was written by John Adams, and served as a model for the US Constitution in protecting human rights and our republic.

We are a center of scientific innovation and higher learning. Our cities and towns teem with students and scholars from around the world, who bring brilliance to our high-tech innovation economy and energy to our political debates. Massachusetts voters have a penchant for independent thinking, often electing Republican governors and Democratic legislators, and backing third-party candidates, in ways that require us to develop bipartisan approaches to policy-making.

We are also a vibrant and welcoming home for the arts, the transformative power of which enables us to think beyond ourselves, while strengthening freedom of expression through the creative process.

With all of this historical privilege, however, comes a deep obligation to ensure that Massachusetts remains a free state, as one of the best hopes for ensuring that America remains a free nation. This isn’t a time for business as usual. We owe it to future generations to ensure that our republic is not lost on our watch.

States play a key role in ensuring freedom in times of national crises. State and local officials can—and must—refuse to collaborate with federal agents seeking to undermine fundamental freedoms and rights. This is work that needs to happen in the courts, in the State House, online, and in the streets.

In the courts, the Massachusetts constitution has a uniquely powerful role to play. Our federal system of government permits state constitutions to be more protective of human rights than the federal constitution. The highly-protective Massachusetts constitution is the reason that women in Massachusetts have state-funded Medicaid coverage for abortion despite laws denying federal funding for poor women’s access to these services. Our state constitution made it possible to win equal marriage for lesbian and gay couples in Massachusetts years before those rights were recognized nationwide.

Looking ahead, we must press the courts to interpret our state constitution in ways that defend human rights against federal onslaught. Due process protections set forth in our state constitution should prevent local and state officials from participating in draconian federal deportation squads and indefinite detention. State legal protections should forbid state and local law enforcement from cooperating with federal practices that target people for surveillance based on their race, ethnicity, religion, or political beliefs and associations.

In the Legislature, too, Massachusetts can take steps to protect people whose rights are threatened by proposed changes to the federal law. Our Legislature should pass laws to ensure that people have consistent and appropriate medical care, including truly affordable and equitable access to contraception, in anticipation of assaults on the Affordable Care Act.

The Legislature should take steps to protect Massachusetts Dreamers—the young people who immigrated to this country as minors, and who the bipartisan federal “DREAM Act” aims to protect—guaranteeing these young people’s safety and full participation in American life. Massachusetts also must pass laws to ensure due process limits on state and local cooperation in federal immigration roundups and raids. And we must end the scourge of mass over-incarceration by ending mandatory minimum sentencing, and insist that our limited tax dollars be invested in substance abuse treatment rather than incarceration.

The Legislature should update search and seizure laws to keep pace with technology. We need clear state limits on the collection, use, retention, and sharing of information about First Amendment-protected activities, such as speech, association, religious affiliations, and the work of the press. State and local police should devote themselves to protecting our communities, not acting as local minions for federal agencies.

Finally, the people of Massachusetts must prepare to take a stand for freedom—even when it is uncomfortable or unpopular to do so.

History teaches that it often is ordinary people doing extraordinary things who change the world. Consider Mildred and Richard Loving, who stood up against anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia; Julie and Hillary Goodridge, who stood up for equal marriage rights in Massachusetts; Edie Windsor, who brought down the Defense of Marriage Act; and Ella J. Baker, who used her organizing talents to build the NAACP, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Recall the courage of high school teacher John Scopes, who stood up for the right to teach evolution in public science classrooms; Fred Korematsu, who challenged the internment of Japanese-Americans; and Ernesto Miranda, who stood up for the right to remain silent. It was Ellery Schempp who, as a high school student, challenged compulsory Bible-reading in public schools, and Mary Jane Tinker who, as a junior high school student, helped win the right of students and teachers to freedom of expression in public schools. Let’s also remember Estelle Griswold, who fought for the right to contraception, and Clarence Earl Gideon, who stood up for the right to a court-appointed attorney for those who could not afford one.

These are all people who overcame community hostility, threats of violence, and often unchecked police power to stand up for what is right. They didn’t do it alone. Often, they were part of larger movements—Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall—and were supported by lawyers, activists, family members, civil rights groups, religious institutions, the media, and friends. In each case, however, these people put principles before popularity.

This is not the time to abandon the promise of America. We must fight to keep our commitment to one another, and to the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. A true freedom agenda requires action at the national, state, and local levels. It demands leadership and courage from elected officials in all branches of government—the courts, the Legislature, and executive. It requires a courageous and robust press; never has the “Fourth Estate” been more critical to our republic, or more vulnerable to intimidation. Most of all, it requires everyone who cares about civil rights and civil liberties to get involved, stay engaged, and take a stand.

Meet the Author

Carol Rose

Guest Contributor

About Carol Rose

Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

About Carol Rose

Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

Our Commonwealth is replete with ordinary people prepared to do extraordinary things to ensure that Massachusetts remains a free state, and America remains a free nation. It is in our collective power to use this historical moment to move forward, and to emerge a stronger and more just nation.

Carol Rose is executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.