The USA PATRIOT Act is a beastly 131-page creation that was passed in a flurry of flag-waving in 2001. It has several terrible provisions: it allows “preventive detentions” and gives the federal government greater authority over the records of foreign students and vastly expands wiretap authority. One misguided requirement even mandates discrimination; it prevents university labs from allowing citizens of seven “terrorist-supporting states” to perform research on certain classified substances.
This law directly conflicts with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) anti-discrimination policy, which prevents FAS from restricting research based on nationality. Under the regulations, it doesn’t matter if the aliens are political refugees or long-time expatriates from their home countries. The defining criterion to be a “restricted person” is one’s citizenship, which means nothing in terms of academic integrity.
This is just another provision of the Act that we expect will be found unconstitutional in the near future, but in the meantime, it is nonetheless a menace to well-meaning researchers. Though Harvard is not yet violating the law because none of its research uses restricted substances on a scale that requires registration with the government, it is quite conceivable that the two policies will come into conflict in the future. FAS should spearhead efforts to overturn this jingoistic law in court.
When a law is patently unjust—and several provisions of the PATRIOT Act certainly are—just people have no obligation to obey it. If Harvard researchers defy this law, morality and common sense will be on their side. Just as non-profits across the country have been challenging provisions of the Act that allow the Justice Department to wiretap private homes and businesses at will, academic institutions must be the ones to take the lead in challenging the legitimacy of the clauses dealing with research.
When the government demands discriminatory practices against specific nationalities, it is simply reinforcing and, even worse, mandating the bigotry towards foreigners of Middle Eastern descent that has unfortunately been quite common after Sept. 11. One of Harvard’s most appealing attributes is that it is a multicultural institution. These goals cannot exist simultaneously with flagrantly discriminatory practices. If FAS tucks its tail between its legs and meekly surrenders to federal authority here, it would erode its own ideals.
The PATRIOT Act poses a substantive threat to academic freedom. It is a showcase example of sloppy legislation, having gone from a draft bill to a public law in just four days—a record for a bill of its size. Able researchers, whatever their nationality, should be allowed to carry out their work without the hindrance of ill-conceived government harassment. Harvard’s Faculty must stand up for that right.