Journal of Educational Controversy

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Sunday, June 5, 2011

An Update on our Journal’s Article on the USA Patriot Act

In our special issue of the journal on the theme, “Schooling as if Democracy Matters,” we published several introductory essays to provide context for the articles that followed. The controversial scenario that we posed in the issue asked:


In this issue, we consider how we are to fulfill the traditional moral imperative of our schools -- to create a public capable of sustaining the life of a democracy. How do we do this in an age of the Patriot Act and similar anti-terrorism legislation in other countries, NSA surveillance, extraordinary rendition, preemptive wars, enemy combatants -- all likely to involve violations of civil rights and liberties and a curtain of government secrecy? What story do we tell our young about who we are, who we have been, and who we are becoming? How do we educate children about their identity in this global world? What sense are they to make of the "imperial" democracy they are inheriting? Is our new political environment a fundamental break with the past or an extension of longstanding trends? What are the implications of these forces for the education of the young on the foundations of our democracy and our collective identity?


One of our two essays in the introduction focused on the controversy over civil liberties in U. S. democracy as it existed in 2008. See Brett Rubio and Bridget Baker article,  “Are We Targeting Our Fellow Countrymen? The Consequences of the USA PATRIOT Act.”

With some of the provisions of this act about to sunset, Congress had the opportunity to exercise its oversight obligations and re-examine carefully the current state of the law. The most recent congressional action with its brief debate on the Patriot Act and related intelligence measures was commented upon in an editorial in today’s New York Times. The Times lamented Congress’s failed duty “to carefully re-examine the provisions, trim back excesses, and add safeguards to protect civil liberties,” by ignoring “the whole point of requiring that the provisions be periodically reviewed.” Instead, the powers were extended for another four years without any changes.

Three specific provisions of concern are highlighted in the Times editorial:
One of the renewed provisions permits a roving wiretap on terrorism suspects who switch phone numbers or providers. While this is a useful tool, the lax rules for specifying who is the subject of the wiretap could invite abuse. Another provision permits the government to examine library, bookstore and business records without having to show that the material is related to a terrorism investigation. The third overly broad provision allows surveillance of “lone wolf” suspects with no known ties to a foreign power or recognized terror groups. It has never been used, but the low threshold for doing so is concerning.
Congress has one more opportunity to provide some safeguards through a resubmitted amendment that has been put forth by Senator Patrick Leahy, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, that would call for “enhanced auditing and oversight of how the powers are being used." The amendment also proposes “an early sunsetting of ‘national security letters,’ which the F.B.I. has used to obtain evidence without a court order, and which have been widely abused.”

The questions we posed in our 2008 issue are as important and current today as they were then. How are we engaging our students in these questions? What kind of public are our public schools creating?

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