Civil liberties won a major victory in
court last week when a federal judge declared parts of the Patriot
Act unconstitutional. The ruling limits the power of the FBI,
asserting the agency cannot demand phone or Internet records
without an official court order. This long-overdue decision is an
important step toward the goal of protecting the freedoms that this
country was built on from infringement. However, lawmakers must go
farther to protect the constitutional rights of every American.

Beth Dykstra

The Patriot Act was a bipartisan bill drafted by Congress in the
immediate post-Sept. 11 fervor to prevent any future attacks on the
United States. Significant portions of the law take away checks on
law enforcement, removing the major legal barriers that previously
prevented the law enforcement, intelligence and national defense
communities from infringing on civil liberties and constitutional
rights. It also allows government agencies to pry into
citizens’ private information, such as medical and student
records, without a warrant or probable cause, and without anyone
ever knowing it was done.

Since the legislation was enacted in 2001, there have been many
lawsuits, filed mostly by the American Civil Liberties Union, to
repeal aspects of the act that deeply infringe on Americans’
rights. Until now, only one challenge to the act had been
successful. Citing free speech provisions, last week’s ruling
struck down a part of the law that permitted access to electronic
communications — such as subscriber information and call
records from phone companies, and information from Internet service
providers — without a warrant. The law also banned the
companies from informing clients about any government search. The
federal district court judge who presided over the case condemned
the act, saying it violates the First and Fourth Amendments because
its permanent ban on disclosure is a prior restraint on speech and
it bars or deters any judicial challenge to the government
searches. He also referenced the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently
said that a “state of war is not a blank check for the
president when it comes to the rights of the nation’s
citizens.”

This decision should buttress civil liberties and curtail abuse
of powers permitted by the Patriot Act. Since its inception, the
act endowed the FBI with tools that violate the Bill of Rights,
tools that the FBI has used for measures separate from fighting
terrorism. The executive director of the ACLU said that this win in
court was “a stunning victory against the John Ashcroft
Justice Department,” and other ACLU officials said that the
reasoning of the decision could be used to attack other provisions
of the act.

The decision in court is a positive development in protecting
the unalienable rights of Americans. The ruling however, is only a
very small step in fixing the entire Patriot Act. President Bush
has argued that the Patriot Act is vital for preventing terrorist
attacks and is pushing Congress to renew all parts of the act
before it expires at the end of 2005. Bush has also lent his
support to additional provisions that, he feels, would help secure
the United States. Before renewing or enacting amendments to the
act, Congress needs to take a hard look at the constitutional
rights that the legislation violates.

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