U students protest Patriot Act, fear civil liberties threatened

by Elizabeth Putnam

Nearly 100 protesters – including several University students – braved the winter wind outside the downtown Federal Courthouse on Monday to rally against legislation they say threatens civil liberties.

Organized by the Anti-War Committee, the event was in response to the USA Patriot Act – which was passed last fall by Congress – and its potential ramifications at the state level.

Melissa Williams, Anti-War Committee member and University American studies graduate student, said awareness of the war in Afghanistan is fading and Americans are becoming apathetic to growing governmental power.

“The federal issues continue to slip through,” said Williams. “This doesn’t need to be here in Minnesota.”

Six weeks after Sept. 11, Congress approved the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act.

The House voted 356-1 and the Senate approved the bill 98-1 despite objections from civil liberties organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union. President George W. Bush signed the bill into law Oct. 26.

Accompanying the act, Bush signed an executive order Nov. 13 authorizing secret military tribunals for non-citizens accused of terrorism.

“The U.S. government’s search for terrorists puts all political activism in the United States in jeopardy,” the AWC said in a letter to other political and social groups earlier this week.

Peter Erlinder, previous president of the National Lawyers Guild, said under the legislation anyone could be sentenced to life imprisonment for breaking a window, if it is seen as a terrorist act.

He said the Patriot Act directly affects universities because international university students are at risk of surveillance.

Political science senior John Coutley agreed.

“We have to keep up the pressure,” said Coutley, “or our (civil liberties) will be gone.”

The debate has made its way to the state Legislature, where lawmakers are considering a bill that would require the University to submit a roster of international students. The institution would also be obligated to report any students who received visas or failed to attend classes.

Erika Zurawski, Spanish and international studies freshman, said she encourages University students to speak out and not let the government threaten their rights.

“The government disapproves of us speaking our voice,” Zurawski said. “It’s a racist bill that will cause more racial profiling.”

Citing the federal government’s past attempts at balancing civil liberties and war, political science graduate student Alice Kloker spoke to protesters about the Sedition Act during World War I and Japanese internment camps set up during World War II.

“The White House has selfishly capitalized upon the grief and sense of loss of Sept. 11 to propose senseless solutions that do not protect us against terror,” said Kloker.

“We must stand in solidarity with our Somali neighbors who fled civil war,” she said. “We must put an end to profiling based on race, ethnicity, religion and national origin.”

Elizabeth Putnam covers St. Paul. She
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