Patriot Act stifles dissent on campus

November 24, 2003|By Morgan MacDonald

AS A COLLEGE student, I am acutely aware of both the legal and social effects of the USA Patriot Act on my life and on the lives of my peers. Passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act has led to a broadening of governmental power to define protest as terrorism and to intrude on our fundamental rights as citizens.

I am concerned by the Patriot Act's impact on the lives of all citizens, but especially on my peers in colleges across the country. No matter what provision of the Patriot Act we examine, its effects are tenfold on a college campus.

A college campus is highly interconnected in every imaginable way, and in that sense differs from the typical small American city. Students are plugged into one central Internet server, student records are compiled in one database, students live in centralized college housing, student groups meet on campus, and so on.

To monitor for "subversive" activity or to track a specific e-mail account is made exponentially easier when all the information is centralized and in the control of school administrations. Students on college campuses have far less privacy than the average person. When this problem is compounded by the expansion of government oversight, students' rights are placed in the most precarious of positions.

Under the Patriot Act, student groups can be labeled "terrorist" organizations if they engage in certain types of protest or civil disobedience. In Minnesota, student groups such as Anti-Racist Action and Students Against War were labeled as potential terrorist threats.

The government can demand that schools hand over student information without presenting probable cause that a crime has been committed. According to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, more than 200 colleges and universities have turned over student information to the FBI, Immigration and Naturalization Service and other law enforcement agencies.

Some college police are reporting directly to federal law enforcement agencies, thus allowing the government to monitor the actions of student groups and individual students without notification to the students or even college administrators.

Beyond violating constitutionally guaranteed rights, the effect of the Patriot Act on college campuses is to create a suffocating educational and social atmosphere. The result of this legislation is the slow deterioration of student involvement and full intellectual participation on college campuses.

If students are not allowed to express themselves in college - to question authority and to team with other students for positive social change - America's future is bleak. I am infuriated when I sit in a student anti-war strategy meeting and one of my peers says she cannot participate in our protest because she is not from the United States and fears the consequences of her actions. That is not the American way. That is not how universities contribute to progress in this country.

Those who drafted the Patriot Act failed to create legislation that protects both the safety and the rights of each American. That lack of attention to our country's fundamental values is striking college campuses like a hidden illness.

America is a country that advocates free speech and free expression because of the belief that a marketplace of contradictory opinions is beneficial to the progress of society. When students are deterred from participating in free discussion and demonstrations of individuality, the marketplace of ideas loses one of its biggest and most essential contributors.

We are not afraid to oppose the Patriot Act because we know the consequences of its implementation. The destruction of our educational freedom must not be allowed.

Morgan MacDonald is a junior at the Johns Hopkins University and co-chair of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Board Youth Affairs Committee.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.