George Mason University's faculty senate passed a resolution yesterday critical of the broad investigative powers granted to law enforcement agencies after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying they could have a chilling effect on academic freedom.
In a statement that mirrors those supported by scholars at institutions including Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, the professors said the wide latitude government agencies have in secretly reading e-mail or reviewing a person's library selections could mute debate and research at all institutions of higher education.
"The preservation of civil rights and liberties is essential to the well-being of a democratic society and an academic environment," the resolution reads. The governmental powers, particularly those set out in the USA Patriot Act, "threaten fundamental rights and liberties."
In the 2 1/2-page resolution, the faculty senate, joined by the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, calls on university administrators to inform students if authorities seek their school records and to make sure students know that authorities can secretly view their library records, bookstore purchases and electronic communication.
The resolution, which the professors asked to be forwarded to President Bush, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzalez and other federal and state officials, comes as Congress is considering whether to renew the Patriot Act fully. The act was passed overwhelmingly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon but has been criticized by liberal and conservative groups. Several of the act's provisions are set to expire at the end of the year.
James T. Bennett, faculty senate chairman and an economics professor, said all but one of more than 30 members who attended the meeting voted for the resolution.
"The Patriot Act runs against the grain of the typical academic," Bennett said. "The whole idea of the academy is to look at all different points of view. This is the kind of thing that takes place in a dictatorship."
Clifton D. Sutton, a statistics professor, cast the sole vote against the resolution. He said the possibility of government intrusion is a small price to pay if it means that more people will be safe from terrorist attacks.
"I think it's just something we have to live with," Sutton said. "I think most of us don't have anything to hide, and I'm comfortable the FBI and other agencies will do the right thing."
In addition to criticizing the powers for library searches, the resolution speaks out against the government's authority to search medical and financial records "with little if any judicial oversight." It also is critical of the authority to deny enemy combatants access to the courts.
David L. Kuebrich, an associate professor of English who is secretary of the faculty senate, said he thinks the danger in the Patriot Act "is that we will curtail speech or research that would be quite critical of foreign policy at a time when we really need a broad review and to be open to dissenting voices."