Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America


An enlightening, intensely researched examination of violations of the constitutional principles that preserve individual rights and civil liberties from courtrooms to classrooms.
With telling anecdote and detail, Pulitzer Prize–winner David K. Shipler explores the territory where the Constitution meets everyday America, where legal compromises—before and since 9/11—have undermined the criminal justice system’s fairness, enhanced the ...
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Rights at Risk: The Limits of Liberty in Modern America

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An enlightening, intensely researched examination of violations of the constitutional principles that preserve individual rights and civil liberties from courtrooms to classrooms.
With telling anecdote and detail, Pulitzer Prize–winner David K. Shipler explores the territory where the Constitution meets everyday America, where legal compromises—before and since 9/11—have undermined the criminal justice system’s fairness, enhanced the executive branch’s power over citizens and immigrants, and impaired some of the freewheeling debate and protest essential in a constitutional democracy.
Shipler demonstrates how the violations tamper with America’s safety in unexpected ways. While a free society takes risks to observe rights, denying rights creates other risks. A suspect’s right to silence may deprive police of a confession, but a forced confession is often false. Honoring the right to a jury trial may be cumbersome, but empowering prosecutors to coerce a guilty plea means evidence goes untested, the charge unproved. An investigation undisciplined by the Bill of Rights may jail the innocent and leave the guilty at large and dangerous. Weakened constitutional rules allow the police to waste precious resources on useless intelligence gathering and frivolous arrests. The criminal courts act less as impartial adjudicators than as conveyor belts from street to prison in a system that some disillusioned participants have nicknamed “McJustice.”
There is, always, a human cost. Shipler shows us victims of torture and abuse—not only suspected terrorists at the hands of the CIA but also murder suspects interrogated by the Chicago police. We see a poverty-stricken woman forced to share an attorney with her drug dealer boyfriend and sentenced to six years in prison when the conflict of interest turns her lawyer against her. We meet high school students suspended for expressing unwelcome political opinions. And we see a pregnant immigrant deported, after years of living legally in the country, for allegedly stealing a lottery ticket.
Often shocking, yet ultimately idealistic, Rights at Risk shows us the shadows of America where the civil liberties we rightly take for granted have been eroded—and summons us to reclaim them.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this fascinating and provocative account, scholar and former New York Times reporter Shipler (The Working Poor) investigates the current state of the average American’s rights, and probes the more extreme boundaries where constitutional freedoms often slip. We meet an American terror suspect abused and held indefinitely without access to attorneys, three Rwandan prisoners who falsely confess to FBI agents to avoid further torture by interrogators in their own country, a 17-year-old Long Island boy who does the same after a cop lies to him about his father’s last words, and legal immigrants forced out of the country over petty infractions for which they’d years ago paid the fines and done the time. We watch as prosecutors, according to the author, armed with unfair sentencing guidelines, stack the deck against those who maintain their innocence rather than plea bargain, or who can’t afford adequate legal counsel in an overtaxed public defense system. Meanwhile, law-abiding citizens find their rights to free speech and privacy eroded as biased restrictions curtail political demonstrations and keep students from voicing dissent, and as post–September 11 fears usher in a new era of warrantless wiretapping and government surveillance. This book is a must for readers who want to stay informed of their rights in the shadowy territory where the government’s need for order and security overstep constitutional protections. Agent: Esther Newberg, ICM. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

“Fascinating . . . Monumental . . . Shipler is particularly good at weaving together legal history and personal storytelling.”
            -Richard McGill Murphy, Fortune
“Shipler doesn’t mince words or shy away from the hard issues . . . The writing is precise, interesting, and frequently moving . . . His coverage, concreteness, and willingness to candidly take on the range of issues make this a terrific book for anyone interested in our rights and liberties.”
            -David Kairys, Philadelphia Inquirer
“There are many books about the stories behind Supreme Court cases. Shipler’s distinctive contribution is the thoroughness and originality of his reporting.”
            -Jeffrey Rosen, The Washington Post
“Fascinating and provocative . . . This book is a must for readers who want to stay informed of their rights in the shadowy territory where the government’s need for order and security overstep constitutional protections.”
            -Starred review, Publishers Weekly
“Well-reported . . . No matter the issue, Shipler humanizes the discussion throughout, linking each topic to stories of real people silenced, marginalized, neglected, bullied, even brutalized by a government that should know better.”
“An eye-opening and troubling look at failures in the criminal justice system that put at risk the rights of all citizens.”
“David Shipler's important new book powerfully reminds us that our constitutional rights are little more than words on paper if we fail to take them seriously when it's inconvenient or even painful to do so.”
            -Linda Greenhouse, author of Becoming Justice Blackmun
“David Shipler’s Rights at Risk is simply a wonderful book. It lays out, more powerfully than anything else I have read, how our constitutional rights have been whittled away in recent years—by presidents and judges and police chiefs. All in the name of national security or safe streets. More than a cry in the night, it is a careful, intensely researched account of a dangerous trend that not enough of us have noticed. Not just law, it is human drama.”
            -Anthony Lewis, author of Gideon’s Trumpet
“In Rights at Risk, Shipler continues his project of showing us how the constitutional rights we exalt in theory are being undermined in practice. This masterful and illuminating book reports how our criminal justice system frequently omits the justice, and how we are not as free to speak out to and against the government as we might like to think. The Constitution needs our help to survive, and reading this book is a valuable first step to reclaiming our fundamental values of fairness and equality for ourselves and for future generations.”
            -Susan Herman, President of American Civil Liberties Union and author of Taking Liberties

“Shipler argues that although a basic knowledge of the Bill of Rights by all citizens is not possible to achieve, we need to maintain a robust ‘Constitutional culture.’ By reading this book and discussing it with others, you will be doing your part.”
            -Portland Book Review


Library Journal
Following hard on the heels of Shipler's The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties, out in trade paperback in February 2012, this book expands on Shipler's argument that our civil liberties are under attack. Shipler's examples include an Iraqi refugee arrested on transparently false charges and an impoverished woman sentenced to life in prison owing to her lawyer's conflict of interest. Sobering reading for the serious-minded.
Kirkus Reviews
A Pulitzer Prize winner resumes his well-reported account of the assault on our constitutional rights in a post-9/11 world. In this companion volume to The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties (2011), Shipler turns to the First, Fifth and Sixth Amendments and the constitutional rights "routinely overwhelmed" during this, the sixth era in our history when liberties have been especially at risk. Citing national security or public safety, the executive branch has historically in times of national crisis chipped away at the Bill of Rights to deal with an immediate threat, leaving us impoverished for the long term. Shipler chronicles our current drift away from constitutional principles by taking us into interrogation rooms where suspects may, without being informed of their rights, fall prey to the manipulations and deceptive techniques of professional interrogators. He exposes the eagerness with which police and prosecutors embrace false confessions, notwithstanding the inaccuracies and contradictions they contain. He examines the criminal courts, where systemic flaws in our laws have diminished the right to jury trial, where the forfeiture of assets and the revocation of probation are too easily accomplished, where the right to effective assistance of counsel has been shortchanged. Frightened officials, after years of lax enforcement, have now mobilized immigration laws to target entire groups. We have also stifled free speech in our schools and universities, Shipler argues, where authorities regularly ignore Supreme Court precedents, choosing order and discipline over vigorous debate. The same impulse accounts for constricting the public square, where so-called free-speech zones and zealous police surveillance chill the right to petition for redress of grievances. No matter the issue, Shipler humanizes the discussion throughout, linking each topic to stories of real people silenced, marginalized, neglected, bullied, even brutalized by a government that should know better. A colorful account of our early-21st-century faithlessness to principles we at least pretend to revere.
The Washington Post
As in his first book, The Rights of the People, Shipler…combines a journalist's eye for detail with a sense of moral indignation about what he argues are the many ways the U.S. legal system has curtailed the rights of the accused, many of them poor and powerless minorities…There are, of course, many books about the stories behind Supreme Court cases. Shipler's distinctive contribution is the thoroughness and originality of his reporting: By interviewing the protagonists in landmark cases, he uncovers some surprising and relevant facts.
—Jeffrey Rosen
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307594860
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/6/2012
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 1,548,261
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.94 (h) x 1.26 (d)

Meet the Author

David K. Shipler reported for The New York Times from 1966 to 1988 in New York, Saigon, Moscow, Jerusalem, and Washington, D.C. He is the author of five other books, including the best sellers Russia and The Working Poor, as well as Arab and Jew, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Shipler, who has been a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has taught at Princeton University; at American University in Washington, D.C.; and at Dartmouth College. He writes online at The Shipler Report.
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Read an Excerpt

The Insolence of Office
Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one. 
                                                               —Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776
On July 11, 1787, as the Constitutional Convention debated how to determine apportionment in the House of Representatives, James Madison spiced up a dense discussion with several pointed warnings about governmental authority. The question was whether to trust the House itself or to impose the constitutional requirement of an impartial census every decade. “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree,” Madison declared. He spoke of “the political depravity of men, and the necessity of checking one vice and interest by opposing to them another vice & interest.”
In the end, the census was chosen to deny House members control over the composition of their own body. It was one of many precautions that have come down to us in the Constitution’s separation of powers and in the Bill of Rights, whose provisions were designed to restrain government from trampling on people’s liberties.
Yet people remain vulnerable. They do not play on a level field against a potent executive branch. Their constitutional rights are routinely overwhelmed, largely out of sight In criminal courts, where few citizens go to watch; in police interrogation rooms, where the public is not allowed; in the closed offices of prosecutors and immigration bureaucrats; and in schools whose authorities show the next generations of Americans that elements of the Bill of Rights can be suspended, evaded, or ignored. This does not happen everywhere all the time, but often enough to damage the constitutional culture. On their way to jail, to deportation from the country, or to expulsion from school, those who confront the muscle of the state frequently see their rights bruised, their liberties wounded. This book is about some of those people. Therefore, it is about all of us.
When compared with other high- income countries, the United States does poorly in limiting governmental powers—only ninth in a field of eleven selected by the World Justice Project for its Rule of Law Index—behind Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia, Austria, Japan, Canada, Spain, and France. Among seven countries of Western Europe and North America, the United States is ranked last.
This seems surprising, since the framers were intensely wary as they created a federal government. With the excesses of British colonialism fresh in their minds, they hobbled the new regime with checks and balances among three branches and circumscribed it with the venerable right of habeas corpus, which allows anyone arrested the right to summon his jailer to court to justify the imprisonment. That was enough to forestall arbitrary rule, the convention delegates believed, and they wrote the Constitution on the assumption that government would have no power that was not expressly given by the people.
That was not enough for the states, which demanded more specific guarantees as the price of ratification. Protections were then provided in the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, which spelled out liberties that government could not invade. These were not purely American inventions. The framers were reviving traditional principles in English law that they had seen abandoned by the British crown, so they drew from the Magna Carta of 1215, the 1689 English Bill of Rights, and the unwritten body of rules and precepts known as English common law.
The end result displayed three salient characteristics. First, it was concise and broadly worded, avoiding the long-winded specifics typical of other constitutions. When there are intricate details, a right not listed may be taken as a right denied. Instead, the framers found strength in brevity, which keeps the Constitution alive by allowing each generation room to reconsider limits on governmental behavior, to reinterpret the meanings of “unreasonable searches,” “cruel and unusual punishments,” “probable cause,” and other key concepts. As Chief Justice John Marshall declared in 1819, the Constitution was “intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.”
Second, unlike the constitutions of many other nations, ours does not bestow rights but recognizes rights that we already possess. Any doubt on this point is snuffed out by the Ninth Amendment, which states explicitly that the enumeration of rights does not “deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Key sections dictate what government may not do: “Congress shall make no law,” begins the First Amendment. “The right of the people . . . shall not be violated,” states the Fourth. “No person shall be held,” begins the Fifth, continuing in a string of negatives. The negatives, the proscriptions against government, are the most potent protections.
Third, all the obstacles to overweening authority are built into the brick and mortar of the Constitution so that individual liberty does not depend on the goodwill of particular officials. Madison and others, understanding the universality of human foibles, made sure that protections were lodged deeply within the system itself. They erected interlocking barriers to autocracy, one right relying on the others so that none thrives without reinforcement by the rest. As a result, critical provisions of the Bill of Rights, stitched together to get the Constitution ratified, function more coherently than their fractious political origins might have predicted. Government cannot be held accountable without the guarantee of freedom of speech and the press in the First Amendment. Justice cannot be served unless upheld by the Fifth Amendment’s requirement that no one “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” which cannot be effected without the ingredients of that “due process” that are specified in the Sixth Amendment: the rights to counsel, to public and speedy trial by jury, to confront and summon witnesses.

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