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Individual rights need vigilant protection by us all

By Vanessa Chong

LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

Tomorrow, we celebrate the 235th anniversary of the founding of the United States. It is a moment to savor in a free society. Every day brings news about the bravery of ordinary individuals in other nations who are risking their lives to fight for basic liberties that we possess and often take for granted. They yearn to freely speak their minds, practice a religion (or no religion), openly criticize those in power and receive fair and equal treatment under the law.

Our individual rights are guaranteed in the United States Constitution and strengthened by a system of checks and balances. Ultimate control rests with we, the people, and not the government.

However, the Constitution is not self-enforcing and depends on each of us to preserve these core values. Vigilance is key — know your rights, use them, and, when necessary, enforce them using the courts and laws.

Hawaii history proudly reflects the efforts of regular folks, community and political leaders that led to broader equality and expanded civil rights enforcement. We have been at the vanguard fighting for women's equality and reproductive freedom; the rights of labor and ending the death penalty; acknowledging and preserving indigenous culture; decriminalizing the use of medical marijuana and advancing same-gender and transgender equality.

But there is much more we can do to as the Aloha State:

» Support all families and allow same-gender couples to marry.

» Create safer communities by investing in alternatives to incarceration so that more juvenile and adult prisoners -- who are disproportionately Native Hawaiian -- can be rehabilitated in Hawaii and return to their communities as productive members.

» Improve women's health by providing statewide access to emergency contraception for victims of sexual assault.

» Reform sentencing policies to more fairly exact justice.

» Eliminate public policies that punish the unpopular, powerless or poor.

The upcoming and high-profile Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Hawaii will be another test of our commitment to fairness and equality. We are hopeful that local political leaders and law enforcement will honor the First Amendment and other civil rights laws in their dealings with peaceful protestors -- unlike heavy handed government reactions to dissent at prior APEC meetings.

In times of urgency or crises, it may be tempting to suspend or erode basic freedoms in order to get ahead. At those moments, it is important to remember that rights, once sacrificed, may be forever lost.

The mission of the ACLU of Hawaii is to protect the fundamental freedoms contained in the state and federal constitutions through litigation, legislative and public education programs statewide. The ACLU is funded primarily through private donations and provides its service at no cost to the public. The ACLU is non-partisan and does not accept any government funds.

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