Bush Antiterrorist Proposals Raise Concerns About Students' Privacy Rights

Bush Antiterrorist Proposals Raise Concerns About Students' Privacy Rights

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Monday, September 24, 2001

 

By SARA HEBEL

 

Washington

 

College and student groups are opposing parts of the antiterrorist legislation proposed by the Bush administration that they say would give federal officials excessively broad access to private student records.

 

The plan, which Attorney General John D. Ashcroft proposed to Congress, includes a section that would allow any employee of the Education or Justice Departments to gain access to college records of any student -- without the student's consent if the federal officials have reasonable belief that viewing those documents could help them prevent, or prosecute, incidents of domestic terrorism.

 

Members of Congress are reviewing Mr. Ashcroft's plan and drafting their own versions of antiterrorism legislation, which

House and Senate committees are expected to consider this week. A draft bill being developed by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a

Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, does not include the student-records provisions that worry colleges, according to an aide to the senator. Members of the House Judiciary Committee are developing their own antiterrorism plan, but details were not available late last week.

 

The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents colleges from releasing students' personal information without their written permission. But the law does allow for several exceptions, including a "health or safety emergency." Federal law-enforcement officials have been using that provision in the past several days to obtain student data from some colleges as they investigate the September 11 attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

 

Mr. Ashcroft's proposal would go beyond the present exemption by giving more federal officials broader leeway and clearer legal authority to force colleges to turn over student records. The current law is vague about the circumstances under which colleges must turn over information to law-enforcement officials.

 

Several college lobbyists said they would support limited and carefully defined language to expand the current exceptions to the privacy law, so that U.S. justice and intelligence officials would be able to readily view the specific records they need in their investigations. But Mr. Ashcroft's version lacks needed safeguards, they said.

 

"We're pretty alarmed at the expansiveness of the language," said Becky Timmons, director of government relations at the American Council on Education. "We're working to get some appropriate narrowing of the scope so we don't hamper appropriate pursuits, but so, at the same time, we don't allow that to interfere with students' rights."

 

For instance, some college lobbyists say that U.S. officials should be required to present a subpoena that details some level of evidence or legitimate concern about a student's possible connection to terrorist acts before the officials could demand to see the person's education records.

 

Ms. Timmons and other college lobbyists concerned about the administration's antiterrorism proposal emphasized that they understand that the recent terrorist attacks have created a new environment for weighing privacy concerns and national-security issues.

 

However, "we can still balance the protection of student rights and the need to protect against terrorists in a rational way," argued Sarah A. Flanagan, vice president for government relations at the National Association of Independent Colleges and

Universities.

 

The U.S. Student Association is taking a more aggressive stance against the education-privacy provisions in Mr. Ashcroft's plan. Julia Beatty, the group's president, argued that the proposal is so broad that it amounts to an "open invitation for law-enforcement officials to racially profile students of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent" and rifle through their private records.

 

Members of the student group plan to urge their classmates to call their U.S. representatives early this week to urge the members of Congress to oppose the changes Mr. Ashcroft has advocated.

 

Copyright 2001 by The Chronicle of Higher Education