By Rabbi Rabbs
The Shulchan Aruch tells us that we must warn others of dangers (Choshen Mishpat 427:8). In fulfilling that Mitzvah, I feel it is my obligation to write this essay, as I recently had the misfortune of dealing with a dangerous arm of the federal government that has reached far beyond its authority, ripped up the Constitution, and violated individual rights of Americans.
That danger is called the United States Census Bureau, and for the past few weeks, its employees without just cause have harassed me in a bizarre obsession to ascertain private information from me that they have no business obtaining. In this essay, I will expound on all of the legal issues relevant to census surveys, and in doing so, we will learn what are our obligations as citizens, how I complied with federal law, and how the Bureau requests information that it is not empowered to ask. This essay will be a first-person, chronological account of what I learned and experienced, and everyone is welcome to draw your own conclusions.
My story began in 2008, when I received a survey in the mail from a private organization, I believe in Indiana, claiming authority to administer the national census. The long survey form looked very suspicious to me for three reasons: (1) It did not appear to be an official survey, because it was not sent directly from the US Government nor did it contain a Washington DC mailing address. I realized it was possible that the government had outsourced the work to a private contractor, but I had no proof that such an arrangement existed, so I was not about to provide any information to what appeared to be a scam. (2) The form was sent and due in 2008, which is not a census survey year according to Title 13 Section 141 of the US Federal Code that states: “The Secretary shall, in the year 1980 and every 10 years thereafter, take a decennial census of population as of the first day of April of such year, which date shall be known as the ‘decennial census date’”. Clearly, 2008 which is not divisible by 10, was not a sanctioned “decennial census date”. (3) The multi-page survey form asked tons of questions that were not only out of the scope of a census survey, but were downright invasive, such as asking me how much money I pay for housing and how much my utilities cost. The survey might as well have asked me who I slept with the night before.
With so many red flags and sirens going off in my head, I immediately investigated what the form was all about and who had sent it to me. A quick Internet search revealed that many other form recipients were similarly alarmed by such an intrusive questionnaire that had been sent to them. I soon confirmed that the survey had indeed been outsourced to a private agency. That solved one mystery. As I continued researching, I learned exactly what our obligations are in terms of census surveys. Article I Section 2 of the US Constitution gives Congress the right to enumerate the number of citizens in order to apportion members of Congress, as it states: “The actual enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of 10 years, in such manner as they shall by law direct.”
According to that law, our requirement is to inform Congress every 10 years as to how many citizens reside in our homes so that Congress can determine how to create congressional districts. That is all that we must do. So, in my case, my legal obligation is to report on the 2010 survey that only one person lives here, and by doing so, I fulfill my duty as a citizen by helping Congress to enumerate, and I’m not required to answer any more questions. As for the 2008 survey, that is not a sanctioned year for Congress to enumerate, so I was not required to answer anything, even though the form stated that failure to do so would constitute a violation with a penalty of $100. That warning is bunk! I took that survey with all of its unauthorized and unnecessary, intrusive questions, and shredded it. For the next 90 days or so, I was continually harassed with phone calls from census takers. I ignored all of their calls, and eventually the harassment stopped.
Fast forward to 2010. I received a census survey directly from the US Government complete with a DC address. Right year, right people. But, the survey itself once again asked questions that were well beyond the scope of what is sanctioned by Article 1 Section 2. So, I answered the first question which asked how many people live at my home. Then, I pasted a piece of paper below that question, and on that piece of paper, I quoted Article 1 Section 2 and stated that I had fulfilled my Constitutional requirement by answering the first question. I mailed the form in, and that should have ended my communication with the Census Bureau for the next 10 years. However, that was only the beginning. A couple of weeks ago, the Bureau made its first of many unannounced visits to my home in an attempt to obtain more information from me — information that it is not entitled to according to the Constitution. The first survey taker arrived while I had my front door open, as painters were busy painting in my living room. That is significant, because had I known she was working on behalf of the Bureau, I would not have opened the door for her, and I would not have engaged her in a conversation. Although the US Census Bureau’s web site states: “Open your door to the Census Taker”, we are not required by law to open our doors to them. If they demand us to open the door, then let them first provide to us a warrant.
In any event, I told the survey taker that I had mailed my form in so I could not understand why she would be sent to me. She told me that I had not completed the form sufficiently. I replied that I had fulfilled my obligation as per Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution, and that she is not empowered by law to ask me anything further. She responded that I still needed to tell her my phone number and date of birth. I informed her that she isn’t even entitled to know that, and I said goodbye. Thankfully, she left or I would have needed to close the door even though fresh paint was permeating the room. The Bureau’s home page states: “Census takers are going door-to-door to roughly 48 million households that did not mail back their forms.” But I did mail back my form, so apparently, the government considers all of us law-abiding citizens that return our form but who do not fall for the Bureau’s unauthorized scam as if we never returned the form. Classy.
In addition, because I turned away the survey taker, I believe it is possible that the Bureau started stalking me. Why do I think that? Because a few days later, as soon as I emerged from my home for the first time that day (it was late in the afternoon already), I bumped head on into a survey taker who said, “you must be Hershel.” Even though I had never seen that individual before, he apparently recognized my face, knew exactly where I lived, and was familiar with my name despite the fact that nowhere on my survey that I submitted did it reveal my name, as the form was merely addressed to me as “Resident”. It creeps me out that as soon as I walked 10 feet out the door, that stranger was right there and knew so much info about me. It was almost as if he were lying in wait all day long for me to emerge from my abode. I told that stalker that I fulfilled my Constitutional duty by submitting my form and enumerating that only one person lives in my residence, and that he is not empowered to ask me anything more. He responded by handing me an official pamphlet published by the Bureau that he claimed sanctioned him to ask all of the questions printed in the survey. I replied that my lawyer told me that there are no such provisions according to the law (ok, that was just a bluff as I don’t have a lawyer, but I just wanted the stalker to leave). He told me that he’d leave but that the Bureau would continue to harass me until I would give to them the information they requested, and that they would send a series of survey takers to my door.
I read the official document that he gave to me, and it states, “You are required by law to provide the information requested. These federal laws are found in the United States Code, Title 13 (Sections 9, 141, 193, 214, and 221) and Title 44 (Section 2108).” I looked up each one of those six citations, and none of them say what the stalker and the Bureau he works for want them to say. Let us examine the Bureau’s six supposed legal sources:
Title 13 Section 141 says that the survey will be given every 10 years, as I mentioned earlier in the essay, and basically repeats what is mentioned in Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution in regards to ascertaining how many people live in each residence so as to determine distribution of Congressional seats.
Three of the remaining five citations merely discuss privacy rights:
Title 13 Section 9 says the Census Bureau must keep my information private.
Title 44 Section 2108 reiterates that same law.
Title 13 Section 214 discusses the punishments for Bureau workers that disclose confidential information.
Only the following two could be construed as even being remotely relevant to whether I am required to answer anything besides how many people live in my residence, and so I will quote both in their entirety:
Title 13 Section 221: “Whoever, being over eighteen years of age, refuses or willfully neglects, when requested by the Secretary, or by any other authorized officer or employee of the Department of Commerce or bureau or agency thereof acting under the instructions of the Secretary or authorized officer, to answer, to the best of his knowledge, any of the questions on any schedule submitted to him in connection with any census or survey provided for by subchapters I, II, IV, and V of chapter 5 of this title, applying to himself or to the family to which he belongs or is related, or to the farm or farms of which he or his family is the occupant, shall be fined not more than $100.”
According to that, Rabbs could be in trouble because he refused to answer the Bureau’s questions. Right? Wrong! The invasive questions the survey asked were not sanctioned by subchapters I, II, IV, and V of chapter 5 of Title 13. Nowhere in any section of any subchapter within Title 13 does it grant Congress nor the Bureau any permission to ask any questions to me other than determining how many people live in my home. The only place within the entire Title 13 that says anything even remotely close to what the Bureau wants the federal code to say is in Title 13 Section 193 that states:
“In advance of, in conjunction with, or after the taking of each census provided for by this chapter, the Secretary may make surveys and collect such preliminary and supplementary statistics related to the main topic of the census as are necessary to the initiation, taking, or completion thereof.”
The operative words of that sentence would seem to be “as are necessary to the initiation, taking, or completion thereof”, and my birth date, phone number, and race are not necessary to the initiation, taking, or completion of the census survey authorized by that chapter. I challenge the Bureau to prove in court that the personal questions it asks in its offensive forms are necessary in determining how many people live in my voting district. Not only will the Bureau fail if it tries to prove that the questions are necessary, but it will not be able to prove that any of the six citations on its pamphlets empower survey takers to ask me anything other than how many residents live in my home. And, because I provided that information to the Bureau three times — once by mail and on two different occasions to census takers, I have more than fulfilled my obligation. Thus, the stalker was wrong and had no justification for interrogating me, and frankly, I think he deserves at least two minutes in the penalty box just for acting so creepy. However, the stalker was correct about one point — the Bureau would continue to harass me. This past week, a bunch of them pounded on my door like banshees, first on Shavuous, and then on Shabbos. As a Jew, I am not even permitted to talk to them on those holy days knowing that the census takers will write down whatever I say, so I just ignored them and didn’t even open the door.
But, the F*king Bureau got the last laugh. They left a voice mail message on my phone on Shabbos afternoon saying that they would no longer bother me because they found another way to obtain my private information. What unbelievable chutzpah by an arm of the government that is clearly out of control, does not respect boundaries nor borders, and does not respect law abiding citizens, our privacy, nor the Constitution and Federal Code which we follow. I pray that everyone is made aware of the truth regarding the Census Bureau and the damage that agency causes, and that no one falls victim to its corrupt methods. Amen.