Opinion: Are All Civil Liberties Created Equal?

In a beautiful symbol of our country's path toward equality and tolerance, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn wed her partner this weekend, nearly a year after New York State passed marriage equality laws. This celebration of their love and commitment was also a celebration of liberty, and the successful campaign to ensure rights for our gay and lesbian fellow Americans.

In attendance at the wedding were, among many other family, friends and luminaries, Mayor Bloomberg, an outspoken proponent of marriage equality, and his police commissioner Ray Kelly. The Mayor and Commissioner are also high-profile advocates of stop-and-frisk policies that shred the the privacy and rights of entire communities in New York, as they increasingly criminalize communities of color.

On the one hand, the President's recent evolution — and the GOP's relatively muted response — on gay rights is a sign that strengthening civil liberties is a winning issue. On the other, you see that the public is willing to tolerate a harsh approach to limiting liberties when it comes to speech, protest and police behavior: From the crackdown on Occupy protestors, including preventative raids; to surveillance of students groups, Muslim associations, and activist organizations; to the continuing practice of indefinite detentions; and the acceptance of security state measures with regards to wiretaps. Politicians are willing to gain political points pushing these policies, and the Supreme Court has been distressingly comfortable with these infringements.

Is it the case of civil liberties for some but not for all? Or is it that not all civil liberties are created equal?

There's no one answer, and no single issue that embodies the expansive term "civil liberties." But it is clear that many politicians, from Mayor Bloomberg to President Obama, want to have it both ways. They want to call themselves "tough on crime" without asking how these approaches fray the rights of our fellow citizens, and thus tear at the fabric of our democracy. Criminalizing more citizens doesn't make us safer — it just makes more of our neighbors "criminals."

Not too long ago, in many states, Speaker Quinn would have been a criminal. Thankfully, our country is moving the right direction in that case. But it will take a lot of work and a shift in the political sands to ensure that same life of opportunity — free from harassment, free from unnecessary profiling, free from fear that protest will lead to detention, free to see law enforcement as your community allies — to all.