March 10, 2004

Patriot Act Discussions Take Stage on Campus

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As part of a day of events devoted to exploring the complexities and local impact of the controversial Patriot Act, a panel discussion was held in room G10 of the Biotech building yesterday.

Calling the Patriot Act “one of the largest emergency acts ever passed in the shortest period of time in American history,” Tracy Mitrano, director of the University Computer Policy and Law Program led the discussion, which was presented by the Office of Information Technologies. The panel consisted of Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services; Robert Richardson, vice provost for research and the Floyd R. Newman Professor of Physics and Sarah Thomas, the Carl A. Kroch University Librarian.

Each speaker focused on a different way in which the Patriot Act affects the Cornell community. Murphy dealt chiefly with the effects the Act has had on international students and applications.

“The world has changed for our international community,” said Murphy. Like the majority of universities across the country, the past few years have witnessed a drop in applications from international students. At Cornell, while applications from international students seeking to study agriculture has risen modestly, applications from students seeking to study biological and physical sciences have fallen sharply. Overall, Cornell has seen a 9-percent drop in applications from undergraduate international students and an 18-percent drop in graduate applications from abroad.

It is the drop in graduate applications from international students that Murphy views as the most serious problem. Noting that 42 percent of all graduate students come from countries other than the United States, Murphy said, “If we are seeing a quarter of the applicant pool dry up, it does portend some significant change.”

Murphy went on to detail some of the difficulties faced by international students, such as problems relating to reentering the United States after returning to their home countries due to rapid changes in visa regulations.

“It has created a disruption that is obviously a serious one,” Murphy said.

Murphy said that such problems have lessened since this fall when a group of freshman male engineers from Malaysia was denied entry into the United States.

More generally, Murphy discussed the change in atmosphere faced by students from foreign countries, saying that, in the past, international students had been told, “Don’t worry, this is the United States, you’re not going to be harassed, taken away … You are in a free country.”

“All of that has gone away,” said Murphy.

Richardson praised the Act’s intent and certain elements but criticized what he described as some of its unintended consequences that could have a chilling effect on academic discussion.

“I want to insist that the set of legislation called the Patriot Act is not an unmitigated disaster in any sense at all. In fact, I’d say it’s the reverse,” said Richardson. “Even the parts that are problematical for the free and open university based interchange of information had very good intentions behind them,” Richardson said.

As an example of a portion of the law that he saw as having a positive impact on national security without overly restricting the ability to perform research, Richardson discussed the bill’s provisions regarding “sensitive but unclassified materials” — those technologies that could be of benefit to terrorists but are not classified by the government. Richardson detailed seven specific research topics that the Patriot Act forbids academic journals from publishing, ranging from how to render a vaccine ineffective to ways to enhance the virulence of a pathogen.

Regarding the more controversial restrictions on the exchange of ideas and people, Richardson was critical but praised the government for its willingness to discuss these provisions.

“I am going to compliment the White House science advisor and its office and the way the administration [has] responded because there has been a very thoughtful and helpful dialogue between the scientific community and the agencies that have the responsibility for the protection of the United States,” Richardson said.

The parts of the Patriot Act that Richardson found most troubling were the restrictions placed on research collaboration with individuals from countries determined by the United States to be terrorist-sponsoring states and the effect that new limits on access to biological pathogens such as anthrax, have had in reducing research on these agents.

“If our national strategy is to find a cure for these natural pathogens, [these restrictions are] obviously counterproductive,” said Richardson, noting that since the Patriot Act was passed, the number of people at Cornell performing research on these pathogens dropped from 37 to two. He attributed the drop to the expenses associated with storing the pathogens in accordance with the new regulations and fear of the consequences of violating the new rules.

Certain provisions of the Patriot Act sharply limit the access students from countries such as Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Sudan and Cuba have to university resources when studying in the United States. These students are forbidden access to certain materials and there are implied restraints on talks they can attend and courses they can take.

“This is simply unacceptable,” Richardson said.

So far, Richardson said, there have been no cases at Cornell involving students from these countries being denied access to resources, however, he deems it inevitable that such a situation will occur.

“This is going to come up one day and when it does, we will have a crisis,” said Richardson, describing a belief held by many Cornell professors that if one person cannot have access to information, then nobody should. He laid out a scenario in which research would not be published and courses dealing with sensitive subjects would no longer be offered.

Davis, discussing the response of the University library system to the Patriot Act, spoke about what she feels are provisions that violate privacy rights, though she acknowledged that the concerns that prompted the provisions in the act were legitimate.

“Confidentiality is really important to the free flow of information and to the vitality of our democracy,” said Davis.

She detailed extensively the ways in which the Library has sought to mitigate the potential effects of the Patriot Act on student privacy. While the Act requires that, if requested by federal agents, libraries must turn over their records, the Cornell library has responded with a policy of destroying circulation records within 30 days. Other information such as purchase requests and questions submitted to the library are stripped of the name of the person who submitted them.

During a question-and-answer session following the discussion, Davis was asked if these policies amounted to purposeful disobedience of federal law. Responding to this allegation, Davis said, “Even though it may seem that we are being distinctly unhelpful with regard to catching terrorists, I think it is [a] paramount value [to] protect everyone’s right to privacy and confidentiality.”

While each of the speakers discussed a different portion of the Patriot Act, a common thread among the panelists was that, while relatively little interference has resulted from the Act, there is a large potential for provisions of the Act to disrupt the functioning of academia.

Murphy said that, so far, “we do not know of any occurrence of requests for
access to student records due to the Patriot Act.”

“The disclosing of information is only going to occur on the advice of Cornell’s counsel,” said Davis.

“In the problematic parts [of the law], the bad things, the unpleasant things that could have happened haven’t at Cornell. There are very few specific examples I can give you where it made significant changes in behavior or the way we go about doing business. … But there is a lot of potential [for these unpleasant things to occur],” Richardson said.

Archived article by Daniel Palmadesso