August 22, 2014

Talking Freedom in Fayetteville

By John N. Berry III, Editor-in-Chief

The library is a neutral zone in a world of battling true believers

“A remarkable gathering” is what Charles Broadwell, editor and publisher of the Fayetteville Observer, called the forum at the Cumberland County Public Library and Information Center, the public library of Fayetteville, NC, and environs. The forum was on “The USA PATRIOT Act and Homeland Security: What Does This Mean for Civil Rights?”

About 150 citizens came to discuss this question. “They were well-known conservatives and liberals, and no doubt more than a few not-so-well-known in-betweens (like most of us),” Broadwell wrote in the Observer. He noted that the crowd was diverse in age, race, and profession, with both civilians and military folks present.

The Fayetteville to which the army sent me back in the Fifties was quite different from the one where Broadwell lives today. I’m not certain the forum at the library could have been held there then. For one thing, Fayetteville was still racially segregated, even though the army and the state’s universities were beginning to integrate. I often hung out at the Fayetteville library, the precursor to the fine library Jerry Thrasher (LJ‘s 1999 Librarian of the Year) now directs. The library was a refuge to a lonely Northern draftee stuck in a Deep South military town.

The idea of that meeting at the library validates what Thrasher has told me about today’s Fayetteville: it is a different place, in a different South – a different America. Broadwell captured the forum’s dynamics:

Discussion lasted more than 90 minutes. It’s one of the best turnouts I’ve seen for such an issue-oriented event, and that made me feel good for what it says about our community. When it comes to ponderous matters like national security and civil rights, at a time when it seems that everyone wants a 30-second snap solution to every issue, does anyone really care? Tuesday night, these folks in Fayetteville made it clear that they did.

One panel featured Broadwell, a law professor from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, and an FBI agent. They fielded an array of questions: “Has the government gone too far, too fast, in stepping up law-enforcement efforts in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks? Are we in effect heading (as more than one audience member put it) toward a fascist police state? Is the government really snooping to the point where we have to worry about whether the books we check out from the library or the Web sites we visit on the computer are being documented in a massive Washington database?”

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT) conducted a series of similar forums in Connecticut, where I live. The same concerns and questions were voiced, the same dissent from and support for U.S. policy. One was held at a public library.

I was reassured to know those Connecticut Yankees were concerned about the same issues that bothered the Tarheels. It was encouraging to see that two communities, often opposed in their politics, agreed that these issues need airing, that the citizenry should decide, and that the public library was the right place to hold the debate.

Broadwell’s advice to his readers is worth repeating: “Keep an eye on what your government is doing…. Read up on the PATRIOT Act (and its rumored sequel, which could impose stronger government measures) and homeland security. Pay attention, and ask questions. That’s a basic freedom we all enjoy – something we can’t afford to lose in this conflict….”

I agree with Charles Broadwell. We’re talking about basic American freedoms here, and we can’t afford to lose them in the current conflict or any others that come along.

There is plenty of information at the public library in Fayetteville or in any American community to keep citizens fully informed and ready to decide those issues, even vote on them when the time comes. The library is probably the least biased source of information in the depth we need to make the decisions to govern ourselves. It is a neutral zone in a world of battling true believers.

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