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Irving R. Segal Lecture in Trial Advocacy

Celebrated Constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams launched a direct hit across the bow of civil liberties when he defended the U.S. government in its efforts to detain suspected terrorists.

Abrams said the current situation poses a delicate assessment of national and personal security versus principles of civil liberties. In this year’s Irving R. Segal Lecture in Trial Advocacy, Abrams said he believes the imminent danger from al-Qaeda justifies holding “enemy combatants” without a right to counsel, even though no criminal charges have been filed against them. Abrams, a partner at Cahill, Gordon & Reindel in New York, also said he supports increased surveillance and monitoring of suspected terrorists, including photographing and fingerprinting students or businesspeople from Arab countries. That monitoring may also mean the FBI has to attend religious or political meetings, if remarks or activities in a mosque, for instance, present a potential danger to Americans, Abrams said.

Speaking on “The First Amendment and the War Against Terrorism,” Abrams noted precedents for suspension of civil rights: The Sedition Act of 1798, which permitted the arrest of citizens who defame the government; the Civil War, when President Lincoln waived the writ of habeas corpus; and World War II, when Japanese citizens living in America were interned in detention camps. Although Abrams recognized these acts as misguided, he nevertheless defended current treatment of “enemy combatants” as necessary, given the attacks on September 11.

“If I thought the al-Qaeda threat was a passive one or equivalent to the Barbary pirates … I certainly would not at all be ready to make some of the painful compromises that I think must be made between the claims of security and freedom,” Abrams said. On the other hand, the man who represented The New York Times in the famous Pentagon Papers case argued that the United States should maintain freedom of the press and access to information. “The more power we give the government, the more important it is for the press to be utterly free to criticize the manner in which the government has behaved and … to be knowledgeable about what the government has done.” Consequently, Abrams said he believes the media must be allowed to inform the public on who is being detained and for how long, without restrictions or fear of reprisal, as has been the case thus far.

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