Patriot Act divides our state’s citizens

Matthew Gruchow

Matthew Gruchow

The United States government has sought new and expansive powers to collect and analyze intelligence since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Now, American campuses could be fertile ground for intelligence gathering, which has some students, faculty and civil libertarians worried about civil rights violations.

Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act shortly after the World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters. The new law was billed by the government as a tool to improve communication between government law enforcement agencies and to aid in the sharing of intelligence it gathered in order to prevent further terrorist attacks. However, civil libertarians argue the act has relaxed procedures for obtaining warrants, searches and seizures, and obtaining student records, including financial and medical records.

“The Patriot Act doesn’t undo the Constitution,” said David Heller, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI office in Sioux Falls. “You still have all the same rights and privileges as an American that you always had.”

The Patriot Act doesn’t give the FBI or CIA free reign to seize records or monitor student activities, Heller said. Nor does it allow them to take records without showing cause, he said.

The problem lies primarily in that the Patriot Act broadens the definition of who can be called a terrorist and could unjustly label students engaged in legitimate political activities and protests, said Jennifer Ring, the ACLU representative for the Dakotas. The Patriot Act allows the government to collect much of this information without telling the student or other faculty that it has seized records or even inquired about a student, Ring said.

“It’s really very hard to tell what’s going on,” she said. “The Justice Department is basically saying, ‘Trust me.'”

Students need not worry about being labeled terrorist, Heller said.

“There’s a difference between being an activist, being outspoken and being someone who has different political views and someone who is conspiring to hurt people,” he said.

However, there was a case in Hennepin County, Minn., of three student activist groups, “Anti Racist Action,” “Students Against War” and “Arise!,” being declared potential terrorist threats by the county sheriff, according to ACLU documents.

Already the FBI has inquired about student records, according to SDSU President Peggy Miller.

In one instance the requests were for a student’s schedule and phone number, Miller said. The requests were reasonable and the information could have been obtained by anyone, she said.

“The student had told somebody something that sounded not quite right and the person let the FBI know,” Miller said. “I thought they were taking a reasoned approach in just asking to find the student to talk about what they had heard.”

In 2002 the FBI inquired about two Muslim students that had attended SDSU, according to University Police Chief Tim Heaton.

While government activity on campus has been limited, the university will continue to keep student records as private as possible, Miller said.

“I still prefer to give students complete privacy; however, as good citizens we have to obey the law,” Miller said.

It will continue to be a difficult balance between protecting student rights and obeying a law meant to keep the country safe from terrorists, Miller said.

“While all of us want to do what we must to keep our country safe, I will have concerns about not having all the old safeguards in place,” she said. “I would be much more comfortable with the questioner or agency having to provide me with an explanation or demonstration of cause.”

For Rozhyer Aware, a graduate student of economics at SDSU, the Patriot Act still holds the potential for students, especially those of middle eastern decent, as potential threats if they are politically active or outspoken on campus.

“It’s scary but at the same time what can you do, tragedies have happened,” Aware, who is a Muslim from Kurdistan, said. “There needs to be a boundary to how far they [the government] can go to protect people or invade their privacy.”

The FBI and the University Police Department have maintained they are not collecting data on students or their activities.

Campus police will monitor activities on its own or in coordination with the FBI and faculty if campus security or student safety appear in jeopardy, said Heaton.

“I have had conversations with them (FBI), but they haven’t been real concerned about this area. The students taht we have here aren’t on their big ‘We’re nervous about them’ list,” Heaton said.

The ACLU fears that the Patriot Act permits such monitoring by the campus police and FBI without any judicial oversigh or other safeguards. In addition, they are concerned about the Patriot Act’s provisions for getting library and health records.

The FBI has always been able to get library records and continually monitors e-mail and Internet usage as part of routine investigations, Heller said.

The taking of student library records constitutes a potentially dangerous threat to American academia and research, said Ring.

“The very cord of academia is that you have to look at everything,” Ring said. “This (Patriot Act) is goign to curtail thought. It’s bad for students, it’s bad for academia and it’s just bad national policy.”

In 1988, the Hilton M. Briggs library went to an automated system that allowed them to track library material electronically.

The library keeps records of which students have what material as long as the material is checked out, according to Steve Marquardt, Dean of Libraries for SDSU.

“Once the item is returned and everything is in the clear, then the link between the item and the borrower is broken in the automated system. It’s erased,” Marquardt said. “In fact, many libraries that have reservations about the Patriot Act are destroying search records even faster than before.”

As a student, Aware can understand in part why the government may want access to these records but fears that inappropriate use of them could ruin students’ lives, she said.

“I have nothing to hide. But I can see where that could backfire and if they go and see what I checked out and make a big deal about it,” Aware said. “You know if I go to the library and check out something on terrorism, and I’m Muslim, I’m sure someone’s going to connect that and make an issue of it.”

The Patriot Act not only defines in greater detail what areas of student life the FBI has access to and the records it can obtain, but it also amended the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). This law generally kept student records from being released without consent of the student.

The Patriot Act places a new exception in the law which allows the FBI to obtain a court order for student records without the notification of the student whose records are to be seized in connection with the investigation or prosecution of terrorism crimes.

Harvard and other universities have posted notices on their websites so students can understand how the Patriot Act may potentially affect them.

Despite all this, the Patriot Act does very little to affect higher education, said Heller.

“As the FBI we are basically the investigators of people’s civil liberties,” Heller said. “We enforce civil rights.”