Academic Freedom and National Security in a Time of Crisis

Academe, November/December 2003 | Go to article overview
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Academic Freedom and National Security in a Time of Crisis


They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

-Benjamin Franklin

Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

Executive Summary

The American Association of University Professors established the Special Committee on Academic Freedom and National Security in a Time of Crisis on the first anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The committee was charged with assessing risks to academic freedom and free inquiry posed by the nation's response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Several imperatives led to the creation of the committee. Among them, still-vivid memories of the McCarthy era yielded an awareness of the degree of vigilance needed to avert a recurrence of the excesses of that time: the sweeping claims of threats to national security, the rampant accusations of guilt by association, and the unchecked powers of law-enforcement agencies. There was also a realization that many organizations that should have been vigilant then (the AAUP among them) were regrettably slow to respond.

In recognizing that now is not the first time that our institutions have been tested by the demands of national security, the committee reaffirms the position taken during World War II by the Association's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure: "Academic freedom is one facet of intellectual freedom; other aspects of that larger concept-freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion-are among the avowed objects for which this war is being fought. It would be folly to draw a boundary line across the area of freedom."

This report rests on the premise that freedom of inquiry and the open exchange of ideas are crucial to the nation's security, and that the nation's security and, ultimately, its well-being are damaged by practices that discourage or impair freedom. Measures to ensure the nation's safety against terrorism should therefore be implemented with no greater constraint on our liberties than is necessary. The report questions whether security and freedom are inescapably opposed to one another. In such important areas as scientific research, the free exchange of data may better enable investigators to identify the means for preempting or neutralizing threats posed by information falling into the wrong hands. We contend that in these critical times the need is for more freedom, not less.

The report discusses developments that represent threats to academic freedom. Most have come to the fore since September 11, 2001, but some arose earlier. The report focuses first on the USA Patriot Act, especially on provisions of this hastily enacted law that gravely threaten academic freedom. The report addresses broad areas of concern, such as the ominous mingling of law-enforcement and intelligence-gathering activities, the impairment of public access to vital information, and the questionable efficacy of these measures in combating terrorism. Specific concerns include the loosening of standards under which the government authorities can compel disclosure of electronic communications.

The report looks closely at the act's business-records section, which empowers federal agents to obtain warrants to gather information about the materials individuals borrow from libraries or purchase from bookstores. The agents need only assert that such records may pertain to the investigation of terrorist "or other clandestine intelligence" activities. Even more ominous is a "gag" provision in the act, prohibiting any person who has been served with such a warrant from revealing that fact. Although a measure recently introduced in Congress would exempt libraries and booksellers from such demands, other dangerously intrusive provisions of the USA Patriot Act could be made permanent by a proposed repeal of the "sunset" provisions that accompanied the law in its initial form.

A major section of the report is devoted to restrictions on information.

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