Debra J. Saunders

How special: Some of the very people who are attacking the Patriot Act on civil libertarian grounds are raising questions as to whether Attorney General John Ashcroft has the right to lobby in its favor.

Here's an idea for a new slogan: Free speech -- Ashcroft need not apply.

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, wrote to Ashcroft that speeches he delivered in U.S. cites to boost the besieged Patriot Act appeared to conflict with congressional rules regarding "publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by Congress."

Conyers objected to Ashcroft's goal of setting the record straight on the USA Patriot Act -- that is, correcting the anti-Patriot Act propaganda -- and suggested that Ashcroft "desist from further speaking engagements" until he could establish that what he was doing was legit. (Department of Justice attorneys disagree with Conyers' interpretation.)

In a press release, the American Civil Liberties Union "questioned" the DOJ's "use of public money to counter broad public concern about the expansive surveillance powers of the law."

Note that both Conyers and the ACLU object to Ashcroft speaking out. If he had agreed with them, if he were not a dissident on their issue, there would apparently be no problem.

On Monday, The New York Times editorialized on Conyers' letter; the editorial failed to speak up for Ashcroft's right to free speech and instead concentrated on the Patriot Act as "a deeply flawed piece of legislation."

Au revoir the hallowed right to be wrong championed by free-speech aficionados.

Adios the public's right to know.

In this case, the public has a right to know what it doesn't know. Northern California U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan said that in talks at law schools and universities, he has found "a tremendous amount of confusion" as to what the Patriot Act does and does not do.

For example, Ryan noted, "People don't understand that prior to the adoption of the Patriot Act, law enforcement was able to get a grand jury subpoena to get library records." The Patriot Act requires a judge's supervision -- to Ryan, that's tougher.

The idea isn't for the government to find out what citizens are reading, either. DOJ spokesman Mark Corallo noted that the measure specifically precludes investigating citizens "solely on the basis of activities protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States."

Debra J. Saunders

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