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.