As the events of the past month have shown, the character of warfare in the 21st century has changed. Battles are fought with germs as well as guns, science as well as steel, and intelligence as well as invasions. Victory will come to those whose minds are the strongest and whose technology is the freshest. In such new wars, college campuses and research laboratories become critical battlegrounds, and students are particularly affected.
As lawmakers in the Capitol scramble to pass an anti-terrorism bill that will mollify citizens’ fears and respond to CIA and FBI demands for increased power to protect the country against future terrorist attacks, legislators must heed the lessons of history and not unnecessarily infringe on civil liberties, especially those of students.
Last week, the House of Representatives passed the anti-terrorist Patriot Act by a 337-79 vote. The Senate approved a twin bill, called the U.S.A. Act, passed by a 96-1 count. The original blueprint, submitted by Attorney General John Ashcroft ’64, sought to allow any employee of the Education or Justice departments access to college records of any student — without the student’s consent — if federal officials believed that the documents could help them prevent or prosecute cases of domestic terrorism.
As approved, however, the Patriot and U.S.A. acts take a needed step toward protecting student rights, requiring law enforcement officials to get court permission before soliciting records. Officials will then receive permission only after having convinced judges that use of the records will remain limited to pursuing terrorists and after having demonstrated clear evidence linking suspected students to suspicious activities.
But the approved bills still have the potential to violate the civil rights of students, both international and American, and could be an invitation for excessive racial profiling. The laws craft a clear, distinct protocol for investigators wishing to access student records for anti-terrorism purposes, but they also are natural overreactions to intelligence shortcomings exposed by the Sept. 11 tragedy. The bills neither sufficiently pinpoint the types of activities for which students may be suspected nor ensure students a clear path of legal recourse should they face unfair discrimination.
History has taught us that hysteria often follows crisis and that panic often leads to the violation of civil liberties. From the Salem witch hunt of the colonial days to the suspension of habeas corpus in the Civil War to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, America has always walked a fine line between pursuing justice and succumbing to fear.
Nowhere is it more important to ensure that we do not fall victim to hysteria than in our courts and universities. Congress has made an attempt to avoid falling into such a trap. But it is only through the sagacity of judges and the wisdom of academics that the intent of the bill can become enforceable policy.
Violating the liberties of those in our educational system violates the system itself. Our nation has done comparable things in the past. We must not again.