Student Privacy and the PATRIOT Act

Student Privacy and the PATRIOT Act

More than a decade after Congress passed the PATRIOT Act, its varied implications are still unraveling.


Recently, news broke that the New York Police Department had been tracking Muslim students like criminals across multiple state lines. Informants were gathering intelligence—they watched the students go rafting, kept a tally of how often they prayed and scoured group emails for anything askance. None of these students were suspected of any wrongdoing or were even breaking any school rules. So why were they subject to such intrusive and unlawful surveillance? Universities were once a safe haven for students—institutions that promoted academic freedom, protected free speech and creative expression, and guarded students’ rights to privacy. Today, they serve as a well of intel for the government. 

Years before the NYPD decided to infiltrate Muslim student groups, Americans unwittingly forfeited their constitutional rights in the name of national security with the passage of the PATRIOT Act in the wake of September 11, 2001. Students, deemed to have a lot to offer in the way of ‘suspicious’ information, were no exception.  More than a decade later, however, the act’s far reaching and varied implications are still unraveling. 

Last month, an observant Muslim woman named Balayla Ahmad, who wears the hijab, filed a lawsuit against the University of Bridgeport, alleging that the University failed to investigate her claims that another student was sexually harassing her. Concerned for her safety, Ahmad lodged her complaints to school administrators more than once, and received a dismissive response. Her harasser, who had pleaded with Ahmad to not report him, in turn falsely accused her of being a terrorist to school officials. However, his empty claim did not fall on deaf ears. According to the complaint, Ahmad was approached by University security, who threatened to report her to the FBI. The next day, FBI agents knocked on her door.

Like the students who were placed under the NYPD microscope, Ahmad’s academic records and information were likely annexed by a government agency without her consent. Even when there is no suspicion of criminal activity or transgression whatsoever, as in the case with the Muslim student groups; or in Ahmad’s case, a murky false accusation that compromised a student’s safety, the FBI and other agencies have an unchecked open channel to any student’s data. In 2001, the PATRIOT Act paved the way for the troubling violations of student privacy that are coming to light today by providing the government a gateway to all information on students collected by universities.

The PATRIOT Act’s vast scope and vague language allow for government agencies to pry into virtually every sector of an American citizen’s private life. College and university students are also subject to a lesser known provision of the PATRIOT Act which gives the government and law enforcement unparalleled access to student records, statistics and information. Student privacy rights have traditionally been protected under FERPA, a law that previously required school administrators to gain a student’s consent prior to disclosing student educational records. Under Section 507 of the PATRIOT Act, however, all the government needs to access student information is to pull an ambiguous ‘under suspicion’ card, circumventing the Fourth Amendment altogether. The Obama administration is enabling Uncle Sam to dig even deeper with its accountability in education agenda, permitting school administrators to turn over a student’s personal information to state officials and private parties freely without student consent, effectively rendering useless the safety net FERPA once provided. The act’s chilling stipulations encompass international students as well. Visas for foreign students can be denied or revoked on a flighty suspicion, and a comprehensive electronic database records all information on them and their spouses and routinely cross references it with government databases for evidence that could disqualify their visas.

The PATRIOT Act is shrouded comfortably in absolute secrecy, “so a lot of times we don’t even know where the PATRIOT act is used with certain individuals,” said Corey Saylor, National Legislative Director at the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). Students should be made aware that the elusive implementation of the legislation continues to put them at risk. According to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), about 200 colleges and universities have turned over student information to the FBI, INS and other law enforcement officials. “Students should be very concerned that their innocent First Amendment conversations can lead to them ending up in police reports and on lists,” continued Saylor.

Grounded in guilt by association, the PATRIOT Act enables government agencies to build cases against students by picking and choosing evidence that may suggest a completely unsubstantiated link to terrorism related activity. The repercussions of this unnerving process can stifle campus life for some students, preventing them from joining groups that allow them to develop their identities, express themselves in a productive and proactive way and enact positive change in their campus communities. “There is a perception among American Muslims that associating with other Muslims is perceived as suspicious behavior in the eyes of law enforcement professionals,” explained  Gadeir Abbas, CAIR staff attorney. “That is something that was really corroborated by the latest revelation about the NYPD, which isn’t necessarily surprising given the assault on civil liberties that has followed from 9/11.”

For other students, instances of profiling can result in compromising what was once a safe space. “It will work to intimidate [other students] from coming forward at all about anything or any concern that a university would be obliged to investigate,” explained Bradford Conover, Ahmad’s attorney. “It may go beyond sexual harassment. Students just may want to keep a low profile.” Given that Muslims have long been subject to unjust targeting and unwarranted scrutiny, “one of the consistent concerns that we’ve heard since the passage of the PATRIOT Act and other pieces of legislation is that Muslims would be afraid to interact with law enforcement,” described Saylor. “It can go from simply reporting a concern about a crime to suddenly the spotlight is on that individual, and information about that individual suddenly goes up the food chain.”

Today, students must work to safeguard their own civil liberties and continue to practice their First Amendment rights in the face of the new-age witch hunt that the PATRIOT Act has manufactured. “You don’t have rights unless you know what your rights are and are willing to fight for them,” Abbas advocated. “Here, Muslim students and American Muslims in general are uniquely well situated to defend freedom for everyone because what starts out as an inquiry into Muslim students will inevitably result in a broader inquiry against others.”

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