Loss of liberties blamed on fear

MU hosted a debate on risk perceptions and the erosion of civil liberties.
Sunday, February 22, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:50 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Professors from around the country gathered at the MU School of Law Friday afternoon and Saturday morning to discuss the roles that fear and risk perceptions play in society during times of democratic crisis — times when civil liberties are jeopardized, such as during war.

The symposium focused specifically on governmental responses to national states of emergency.

MU law student Jamie Nies said she felt the topic of democratic crisis was important to discuss because it relates to the state of post-Sept. 11 American government.

“Fear is driving our decision-making,” she said.

Nies said it was important for students to hear perspectives from people who were discussing this issue outside of the classroom.

Neal Feigenson of the Quinnipiac School of Law in Connecticut presented a study that focused on societal responses to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and terrorism in America and Canada.

Feigenson’s study found that Canadians reacted more strongly to SARS than terrorism because they viewed it as a risk that was distinctive to their country. Americans, on the other hand, reacted more strongly to terrorism. Feigenson also studied the roles that media in both countries played during these crises. He found that six times as many articles in Canada were devoted to coverage of SARS than terrorism, and vice versa in America.

Betty Winfield, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, commented on the history of American government implementing laws that narrowed civil liberties during times of democratic crisis. She cited the Espionage Act of 1917 as an example.

“The more aggressive attorneys general are during times of crisis,” Winfield said, “the more they are later blamed for loss of civil liberties.” She said that too often the aims of presidential administrations during times of democratic crises are to thwart political criticism.

Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago School of Law echoed Winfield’s concerns. He said it is much more difficult to assess the damages caused by loss of civil liberties during “war fever.”

Stone said communities need to create a set of actions to defend their civil liberties before crises occur. That way “we (the government) will be less likely to do the same things again at the same level,” he said.

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