AAUP Report Sees Threats to Campus Freedoms from Patriot Act

RALEIGH — A report by the American Association of University Professor describes potential threats to academic freedom since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

A key portion of the report, which was prepared by a special committee tasked with “assessing risks to academic freedom and free inquiry posed by the nation’s response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,” looks at provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which the report states “gravely threaten academic freedom.” In general, the report states, “The speed with which the law was introduced and passed [in October 2001], the lack of deliberation surrounding its enactment, and the directions it provides for law-enforcement agencies have raised troubling questions about its effects on privacy, civil liberties, and academic freedom.”

According to the report, provisions in the Patriot Act that affect academe include: granting exceptions to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (1974) to allow senior officials in the U.S. Dept. of Justice with a court order to collect educational records related to an investigation or prosecution of a suspected terrorist; altering the Electronics Communications Privacy Act (1986) to eliminate the wiretap statute for voice communications stored with third-party providers (such as presumably university voice-mailboxes), requiring instead a search warrant, which is easier to obtain than approval of a wiretap permit; and amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (1978) to “eliminate the specific categories of information” covered and extends it coverage to “any ‘person,’ a designation that can encompass academic libraries, university bookstores, and Internet service providers.”

The report was also cautionary over the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, which places security strictures over “every laboratory in the nation that works with ‘select’ biological agents.” The report also lists several problems and concerns with the Student Exchange Visitor Information System, “a Web-based system to track foreign students and scholars,” and the more rigorous screening requirements for foreigners from countries designated as supporters of terrorism (Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria and others) or as sensitive (Russia, China, and India).

Furthermore, the report questions the overall effectiveness of restrictions on “sensitive” information and research and also regulations on exports. It acknowledges that the “classification system [for information] and export regulations are suitable for restricting the release of information that could result in sudden and drastic gains by terrorists.” It states, however, “The challenge is to restrain the dissemination of only that research which, if disclosed, could harm national security.”

Finally, the report discusses “issues that have arisen within the academic community and the ways in which faculty members, administrators, and governing boards have dealt with challenges to academic freedom.” It discusses the cases of University of New Mexico professor Richard Berthold (who joked in class that “Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote”), Orange Coast College professor Kenneth Hearlson (falsely accused by Muslim students of calling them “terrorists” and “Nazis”), and some others. The report denounced as “disturbing” the University of South Florida’s dismissing of professor Sami Al-Arian, who was arrested with several others for having “raised funds and provided material support for terrorist organizations.”

Two universities in North Carolina merited mention in the AAUP report. UNC-Chapel Hill was discussed owing to the controversy and lawsuit over its assignment of Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qu’ran: The Early Revelations, but the report noted that “the UNC administration held firm.”

N.C. State also was mentioned in the report under a section highlighting “intense community response, even expressions of outrage,” to visiting speakers. The report states that “talk-show host Phil Donahue managed to finish his commencement address at North Carolina State University, despite boos, catcalls, and the visible departure of some graduates.” (The report’s paucity of description does not inform readers that the boos began after, as reported by Baker Mitchell for http://www.CarolinaJournal.com, Donahue had “harangued parents for their role in trampling the United States Constitution and said that the graduates must protect this sacred document by becoming liberal.”)

The AAUP also discusses the threat presented by “private groups, parading under the banner of patriotism or acting to further a specific cause, [that] have been monitoring academic activities and have denounced professorial departures from what these groups view as acceptable.” Nevertheless, the report states, “As private entities, these groups are protected by the First Amendment from state censorship or sanction as long as they stay within lawful bounds. They are sheltered by the same freedom of expression that we seek for ourselves, and they are equally subject to public rebuke.”

Going further, the AAUP report states, “Insofar as a particular professor might be thrust into the rough and tumble of the public arena, the law demands, as a prominent legal scholar once put it, a certain toughening of the mental hide. Such is the price of free speech.”