February 6, 2004

Reactions to Patriot Act

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The fate of the Patriot Act is currently at stake. On Jan. 23, a federal court declared part of the Act unconstitutional. A counter act modifying the Patriot Act is now making its way through Congress, and President George W. Bush is faced with having some of his most prominent anti-terror legislation expire.

The Patriot Act was originally implemented by President Bush in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“With my signature, this law will give intelligence and law enforcement officials important new tools to fight a present danger,” Bush said at the bill’s signing.

Five groups and two U.S. citizens brought the constitutionality of the Patriot Act’s ban against providing “expert advice or assistance” to terrorist organizations before the courts. The plaintiffs had found themselves threatened with 15 years of jail under the Patriot Act for giving advice on lawful and nonviolent activities to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Both groups are currently on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The groups pleaded that the ban violated their First- and Fifth-Amendment rights. The judge’s ruling agreed with the plaintiffs and stated that “the law, as written, does not differentiate between impermissible advice on violence and encouraging the use of peaceful, nonviolent means to achieve goals,” said U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins. “The ban is impermissibly vague in its wording.”

“I do not believe that the recent decision by Judge Collins was correct. We are currently in a war on terrorism, and while none of our civil liberties should be infringed by the government while it hunts down terrorists, any person who actively seeks out foreign terrorist organizations and ‘advises’ them on anything most certainly undermines our national security,” said Ellis Oster law ’06, chair of the Cornell Law Republicans.

It was the first federal court case to declare part of the Patriot Act unconstitutional, and according to Emily Whitfield, director of national media relations for the American Civil Liberties Union, “there are more than 230 communities around the country who have passed resolutions calling for the repeal of certain controversial sections of the act.”

Currently, the ACLU has a case against the Patriot Act pending in Detroit. In Congress, the new Security and Freedom Ensured (SAFE) Act has been brought to the floor. If passed, the SAFE Act would monitor the Patriot Act by modifying the “sneak-and-peek warrants,” calling for more proof before allowing the use of roving wire tapes, and making FBI officials display reason before they could access library and other business records.

“We oppose limiting the Patriot Act through the SAFE Act. We hope that this will be the last challenge to the Patriot Act’s constitutionality,” said Darren Rumack ’04, president of the Republicans of Cornell Coalition.

The continuing existence of the Patriot Act has been given high priority by the Bush administration. In his Jan. 20 State of the Union address, President Bush requested Congress to reauthorize the Patriot Act before its expiration in 2005. In addition, Attorney General John Ashcroft said in response to the SAFE Act that the President would veto the bill if it reached his desk.

Here in Ithaca, the Common Council has been open about its opposition to the Patriot Act since it unanimously passed the Resolution to Defend the Civil Rights and Liberties of the People of Ithaca in February 2003.

“I am heartened by it; any pieces that get declared unconstitutional is a good thing. … If we start giving away our basic freedoms, then nothing is left to protect,” said Common Council Rep. Dan Cogan M.S. ’95 (Green-Fifth Ward).

Common Council Rep. Michael Taylor ’05 (D-Fourth Ward) agreed, saying, “I and other people on the Council are anxious to see the [Patriot Act] go.”

On whether the current court decision will stand, Prof. Stephen Yale-Loehr, law, said, “The courts tend to defer to Congress and the executive branch on matters of national security. I wouldn’t be surprised if the recent court decision gets reversed if it is appealed to the Supreme Court.”

Archived article by Casey Holmes