Buchanan and Strossen engage in lively debate on Bill of Rights

Presidential hopeful and political analyst Patrick Buchanan debated ACLU president Nadine Strossen in a Williams College Debate Union event Monday night. Co-sponsored by the Class of 1971 Public Affairs Forum, the lively speaking engagement tackled the question, “Are Non-U.S. Citizens Subject to the Protection Given by the Bill of Rights?”

Strossen, a professor of law at New York Law School and the first female head of the ACLU, teamed with Neil Hoffman ’04 in affirming the question at hand, while Buchanan, most recently the author of “The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization,” was paired with Sarah Iams ’04 answering in the negative.

The debate, in following with the WCDU guidelines adapted from the Oxford Union Debating Society, provided each side with five minutes for student introductory remarks, a 15 minute speech from the featured speakers, and an additional five minute student rebuttal in opposite order from the original sequence. In addition, time was provided for remarks and questions from the floor after the long speeches and before the rebuttals.

Prefacing remarks were presented by The Class of 1971 Public Affairs Forum representative Jack Sands ’71, who cited the traditions and standards upheld by the annual Forum-sponsored events. “Interest to Williams students” and “applicability” were the two delineated criteria, conditions that Sands thought were “clearly shown by the great turnout here to be satisfied.”

The opening statement was provided by Hoffman, a recently-declared political science and history major, and strong proponent of universal Bill of Rights coverage. Alluding to the famous words of Thomas Jefferson supporting “the rights of man,” Hoffman pointed to the popular recognition and approval of basic personal rights, saying, “This is a belief that permeates all facets of the educational system, one that we are taught from a very young age.”

Speaking in opposition, Iams used both the basic definition of nation and the specific contemporary problems that our nation faces as reasons to answer the question in the negative. “The US government exists to promote its citizenry,” she said, “which would seem to make the distinction between a citizen and non-citizen rather important.” “In these times,” she continued, “we have to be justifiably suspicious of aliens – our safety demands it.”

Taking the podium to thunderous applause, Strossen spoke forcefully and succinctly about the historical scope of the Bill of Rights, a span that, in her opinion, encompassed any and all persons within the borders of the United States. In defending this stance, she cited the “plain language” of the text itself, which she called “indisputably and unambiguously clear.”

“There is, between the rights of citizens that are clearly prohibited to aliens, such as voting or holding office, and those that are more basic, a stark contrast in language,” she said. “The word ‘citizens’ does not appear once within the Bill of Rights, and for a purpose. You see it in the words the founders did choose – people, persons, ‘the accused’ – all purposefully broad and encompassing.”

Strosser attacked the potential for abuse in a scenario in which the Bill of Rights was not respected, citing the recent “post 9-11 dragnet of un-accused suspects based on national origin and religion” as an example of how such a scenario would be, in her words, “morally and legally wrong.” Presenting a number of recent lawsuits brought by the ACLU on behalf of the anonymous prisoners, she quoted the words of the courts in attacking the federal initiative – “judges have called this “against the spirit and the letter of the constitution,” and “odious to a democracy.”

Continuing, she cited the approach of the government itself in these lawsuits as proof of the universality of the Bill of Rights – “in not a single one of these cases has the government even attempted to use the non-citizenship of the prisoners as a defense, or even as a defense for fewer rights,” she said.

With his 15 minutes, Buchanan chose to adopt a more anecdotal tack, arguing against the practical application of the ACLU’s “high ideals and principles, which often lead into places where idealism is not nearly so useful.”

The experienced speaker presented several examples of foreign nationals in the news, and used their potential relation to the first ten amendments to frame his arguments against coverage.

“Look at Al-Qaeda,” said Buchanan. “Under the system that [the ACLU] propose[s], the safest place in the world for these people to be would be in our country. All they have to do is swim across the Rio Grande, and they have the right to a jury trial and due process and all these rights that would completely defeat what our boys over there are fighting for.”

Buchanan referred to multiple historical examples of national security trumping personal rights, including Lincoln’s decision to suspend habeus corpus during the Civil War and the secret trials of captured Nazi saboteurs during World War II as examples of proper governmental conduct.

“The safety of the people is the highest law,” he said, paraphrasing a famous quotation in later saying, “the Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact.”

Commentary from the floor was notable for the return of Seth Brown ’01, who again entertained the crowd with his rousing, rhyming summation of the evening’s events. Less than pleased was Buchanan, who suggested that Brown, “learn a little history, instead of relying on doggerels.”

Conclusions from the students, limited by time, were concise and direct. Iams spoke to the fallibility of the Constitution, and to the dangers of “liberal idealism,” saying “we don’t live in a perfect world, and we need to acknowledge that.” Anderson beseeched the crowd to side with his camp, claiming that “in founding principles, in international law, in loyalty, we believe our argument holds up.”

One part of the Oxford debate tradition that was available, but not used was the “Point of Information,” a device by which the opposition has the right to interject a question or comment into a speaker’s remarks during certain times. However, the decisive part of Oxford tradition that was utilized – the audience, by exiting through one of two demarcated doors representing either the affirmative or the negative, was able to express their opinions about the outcome of the debate. At the final count, the crowd had sided with “the affirmative” by a 372 to 113 vote.