|Thomas Nephew (left) speaks with a passerby about bag searches at a DC Metro station.|
Each month, BORDC recognizes an individual who has done outstanding work in support of civil liberties and the rule of law by honoring him with our Patriot Award. This month we recognize Thomas Nephew of Takoma Park, MD, for his local activism protecting civil liberties.
Thomas, who works as a research analyst, has always had an interest in defending civil rights and liberties. His activism started in the 1980s when he became involved in the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign as a student at the University of California – Davis. After 9/11, aware of the inadequate coverage of domestic surveillance and counter-terrorism, he started his blog, Newsrack. Recognizing the power of the Internet, Thomas became involved in an online group in 2007 called Get FISA Right, which originated on my.barackobama.com with an open letter opposing the 2008 FISA Amendments Act and ultimately became the largest self-organized group of users on the site.
Since then, in addition to working towards addressing the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program authorized by the 2008 law, the group’s focus has broadened to address all types of surveillance issues, including the controversial new airport body scanners and the recent FBI raids. As his activism continued, Thomas grew more aware of the importance of local coalitions and their importance in forcing change. In 2008 the Tacoma Park police department announced that they would acquire a license plate scanner that automatically crosschecks plates against multiple local, regional, statewide, and national databases to identify vehicles that are of interest to the authorities. In response, Thomas organized a panel featuring the local ACLU chapter and Constitution Project. Together, they worked to persuade the city council to include guidelines for the scanners that ordered the disposal of information after 48 hours.
Most recently, Thomas has been active in the opposition against random bag searches in DC Metro stations. Working closely with Sue Udry, executive director of the Defending Dissent Foundation, and Pat Elder, cofounder of the DC Bill of Rights Coalition, Thomas started a petition against the searches that has already been signed by more than 600 people. In early January, the Metro Riders Advisory Council (RAC) held a meeting where members of the public were able to voice their concerns. Thomas and several other speakers who attended played a prominent role in the RAC’s decision to propose a resolution asking WMATA to suspend bag inspections and consult with the public about transit security policy.
Thomas champions the efforts of local coalitions, saying that they “give people a voice, a platform they otherwise they might not have had,” in addressing national issues. He strongly supports local campaigns, including the Local Civil Rights Restoration Act, as a strategy for inciting profound change at the national level.