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When Congress Voted Down The Fourth Amendment

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Earlier this month, President Obama nominated North Carolina Rep. Mel Watt to head up the Federal Housing Finance Authority. Here's a fun little nugget about Watt that has little relevance to the job he's seeking, but has lots of relevance to the current debates over leaks, press investigations, wiretapping, and such:

Back in early 1995, the new Republican majority set out on its "limited government" agenda with a bill to chip away at the Exclusionary Rule, the policy that says evidence found in the course of an illegal search can't be used against the suspect at trial. (Though there are some exceptions.) During the debate, Watt introduced the following amendment to the bill:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

That of course is the exact language of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The House killed Watt's amendment by nearly a 3-1 margin.

There have been a number of public opinion polls over the years showing majorities of American opposed to the Bill of Rights when they aren't told the language they're being polled about is actually from the Bill of Rights. Probably the most famous example came in an April 1969 segment of 60 Minutes focusing on a poll commissioned by the show which asked respondents questions like should the government be able to ban peaceful demonstrations?, and should the government be allowed to censor news stories?, and should the government be able to try someone again after they've been acquitted were already prohibited by the Constitution?. In each case, a majority sided in opposition to the Bill of Rights.

Ten years later, a Gallup poll found that 80 percent of Americans couldn't identify the freedoms protected by the First Amendment, and nearly 40 percent thought the press had too much freedom.

During the height of the drug war, a September 1989 poll by the Washington Post and ABC News found that 62 percent of Americans said they would "be willing to give up a few of the freedoms we have in this country if it meant we could greatly reduce the amount of illegal drug use." Another 52 percent agreed that police should be allowed "to search without a court order the houses of people suspected of selling drugs, even if houses of people like you are sometimes searched by mistake." Another poll showed 70 percent support for warrantless drug raids on public housing tenants, a policy later adopted by the Clinton administration before it was shot down in federal court. Other polls taken in the late 1980s and early 1990s showed majority support of government-mandated drug testing for a wide variety of professions, including hotel employees, lawyers, professional athletes, and entertainers. A 2002 Gallup poll found 7 in 10 Americans thought public schools should be permitted to randomly drug test all students.

In 1991, the American Bar Association commissioned a poll that found that only "one-third of adult Americans can correctly identify the Bill of Rights and fewer than 1 in 10 know it was adopted to protect them against abuses by the Federal Government." That was about the time that the right was making a big to-do about the Supreme Court decision holding that laws against desecration of the American flag were unconstitutional. Polls taken from the era consistently found that Americans opposed the ruling by about a 3-1 margin. Amusingly -- or perhaps horrifyingly -- while these polls consistently show that startlingly high percentages of Americans oppose basic civil rights protections from government abuse, this particular poll found that 3 and 4 respondents thought the Constitution should guarantee everyone free health care.

Most recently, a HuffPost poll taken just last month found that a third of Americans -- and 55 percent of Republicans -- support making Christianity the official state religion. Oddly, at the same time, six in 10 Republicans also concede that doing so would be unconstitutional.

All of which is a good reminder of why we have a core set of basic rights that we don't put up for a vote. (Hell, you might even call them inalienable!) It's worth remembering the next time you hear a politician cite public opinion polls in defense of some new law that will give the government more power, and the rest of us less freedom. As the old saying goes, democracy is three wolves and two lambs deciding what's for dinner.

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Filed by Radley Balko
 
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