You and a friend from class go to an anti-war rally downtown. Arguments flare between the anti-war marchers opposed to the United States military response to the Sept. 11 attacks and some people there who favor it. In the heat of the moment, your friend spray paints "Fuck Bush" on the wall of a post office.
Maybe she's a little reckless, you think -- vandalism is against the law, after all -- but is she a terrorist?
Despite what we understand as our right to freedom of speech, the government could prosecute her as one if new laws go into effect, and that's only one provision of the legislation that could chip away at your privacy and civil rights.
Your permanent record
Both the House and the Senate are expected to vote this week on different versions of anti-terrorism bills ( House PATRIOT bill and Anti-terrorism Act of 2001) that would give law enforcement much broader power in investigating terrorist activities, including giving federal investigators easier access to students' records.
But a survey of universities just released by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers suggests that gaining access to such records is already a piece of cake.
Rooting out terrorism
After the attacks on American targets Sept. 11, members of Congress, like many Americans, rushed to prove that we could fight terrorism and win, so they created what many considered a united front in drafting some tougher anti-terrorism laws.
But many civil liberties activists say they're worried that legislators are willing to give up too many of our constitutional rights so that we can feel safer.
Critics of the proposed changes say that if enacted, the new laws would erode the privacy rights of average citizens, in particular millions of Internet users; reduce the role of the courts in overseeing the activities of intelligence, immigration and law enforcement officials and give police greater powers in pursuing routine criminal cases not involving terrorism.
"The [proposed] legislation is sweepingly overbroad," says Nadine Strossen, president of the national ACLU in New York City. "Their definition of terrorism and terrorist activity would extend to political protests if they involved or threatened harm to people or property. PETA would be labeled a terrorist group if they threw a tomato or a student who threw a rock through a window would be a terrorist."
Handing 'Em Over
But before you get too worried about losing your civil rights under the new laws, you should understand how much of your personal information is already up for grabs.
The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers issued their survey, "Campus Consequences of the Sept. 11 Attacks," so that administrators could see how their colleagues were handing similar requests for information by law enforcement since the attacks Sept. 11. They also wanted to determine how many students from foreign countries (who pay hefty tuitions to attend American universities) might have withdrawn from school because of the terrorism.
Much of what AACRAO found was understandable, an official says, but some of the responses are troubling.
"Obviously in a time of crisis and at a time when additional culprits might be at large, there's a balancing act that schools have to engage in," says Barmak Nassirian, an ACRAO official.
"On one hand, you want to comply with the law in the way that schools are required to, but schools can't put themselves in the position of second-guessing law enforcement. When push comes to shove, you err on side of cooperation [or risk] some devastating outcomes," he says.
Although 968 of the 1213 schools that filled out AACRAO's survey said they hadn't been contacted by law enforcement since Sept. 11 with requests for student records, 170 schools said that they had, and 50 schools reported that more than one agency had contacted them.
In addition to asking whether schools had been contacted by law enforcement, the survey also included specific questions about what kind of information the officials asked for and whether the schools informed the students that law enforcement had requested information about them.
Police or FBI agents made 99 requests for what's called "non-directory" information, which is considered more private information like social security numbers, course schedules and student account information, the release of which is banned by law except with the student's consent, Nassirian says.
But as with most laws, Nassirian points out, there are loopholes.
"The law makes an exception for releasing information without a subpoena if it's requested because of a 'pending danger of health or safety of others,'" he says. "In that instance, the release doesn't require a subpoena or [the student's] consent."
Nassirian says that in a time when America was hit with unprecedented terrorist attacks, schools seemed reluctant to withhold any information that was asked for. And according to the preliminary data gained from the survey, Nassirian says it appears that many schools didn't inform students of requests even when they were required by law to do so.
"That's a little worrisome and hard to interpret," he says.
He points out that their findings are still too new to draw concrete conclusions about the schools' actions. For example, only 12 requests for information were accompanied by a subpoena and 192 weren't, but it's unclear whether police needed a court order to legally access the records.
Some of those requests might have been made by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), for example, which doesn't need student consent to access information of foreign students attending school on a student visa.
The FBI made the highest number of requests, however (149), while the INS made 56 requests for information. While only 16 requests for student records were "based on ethnicity," according to survey respondents, 121 requests were for records of particular individuals.
Law enforcement got the information they asked for from 159 schools; only eight denied any requests. Nassirian says that AACRAO hasn't yet been able to evaluate why those requests were denied.
Nassirian says he's concerned that the language of the anti-terrorism legislation pertaining to student records is too vague.
The Senate bill says that with a court order, officials have a right to request "reports, records and information," which Nassirian says is so broad that it could include student medical records or even a professor's notes on class participation, like what a student said in class about the United States' Cuban policy, for example.
"That information can range from parking tickets to if you had an STD as a sophomore," he says.
Shari Steele, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that the proposed bill will likely stifle students' freedom of expression and political activity.
"It's certainly going to curtail some political speech. Part of freedom of speech is that you can criticize your government," she says.
History of Rash Abuses
America has a history of pushing through laws intended to safeguard citizens but later proved unfair and even racist.
Congressional actions during World War I in 1919 resulted in raids in 33 cities where about 6,000 people, many of them immigrants, were arrested as suspected Communists or anarchists. Many were imprisoned or deported even though many historians consider the evidence against them weak.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that about 120,000 Japanese-Americans to be detained in camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. In 1988 the federal government began paying reparations to those who were imprisoned there.
Although some parts of the proposed bills might seem trivial to you now, keep in mind that domestic surveillance powers enacted in the 1940s were later used by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover to snoop on American citizens throughout the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
"Thirty years ago the FBI also requested student records, but those people didn't pose a danger," Nassirian says. "They just held political opinions that differed from J. Edgar Hoover."
Virginia Pelley is ChickClick's society+politics editor.