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Breaking Down the Patriot Act, Part I

The Patriot Act: It is often in the news, but honestly, do people really know what the Patriot Act is all about? More importantly, do students at Mississippi College  know what this Act means for them?

Can the government check citizens’ emails without their knowledge? Can MC officials hack into students’ online accounts? What about the books that read in the library? Is someone keeping tabs on the literature being read?

The answer to these questions, and more, may surprise people. Over the next few weeks, this column will break down the Patriot Act and explain not only how this law works but also what it means to young adults, who are about to enter the next phase of their lives.

Let us take a closer look at the Patriot Act and how it works. The title of this act is actually an acronym–USA PATRIOT. It stands for Uniting (and) Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism, and it is commonly known as the Patriot Act of 2001.

The goal of the Patriot Act is to act as a tool for law enforcement in the fight against domestic terrorism. The law was written to strengthen domestic security and also to broaden the powers of law enforcement agencies when it comes to not only identifying, but also stopping terrorists.

The Patriot Act was passed in the weeks that followed the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. However, this law is not without its share of controversy. Supporters believe the law has been instrumental when it comes to the investigations and eventual arrests of many terrorists. Critics believe this law gives the government too much power and actually threatens civil liberties.

The basics of the Patriot Act allow the federal and even state law enforcement agencies to search the telephone calls, emails, health and financial records of citizens. This is done with the intent to reduce and prevent terrorist activities in the United States.

The Patriot Act was designed around the basic idea that in the face of terrorist threats, Americans will have to agree to a balancing act, meaning they will have to balance their freedom with security. In May 2011, President Barack Obama signed the Patriot Sunsets Extension Act of 2011.

This adds four years of the legal life of roving wire taps, surveillance of non-American “lone wolf” suspects who do not have confirmed ties to terrorist groups, and court ordered searches of business records. Those three specific provisions must be renewed every few years. That is because of concerns that those provisions could be used to violate privacy rights.

The Patriot Act comes with much criticism. Many people believe that the Patriot Act violates civil liberties that are guaranteed by the Constitution.

The right to privacy and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure are the two issues that are most often mentioned. These concerns stem from the government’s ability to conduct wiretaps and obtain search warrants without notification.

The Patriot Act allows the government to hold material witnesses and even terrorism suspects without them having access to attorneys. Critics also believe the Patriot Act gives the Executive branch of government the upper hand in governmental matters. The lack of judicial review or secret reviews subject to strict gag orders are also areas that come under close scrutiny with this act.

However, there are many who believe the Patriot Act is serving its purpose. The Department of Justice lists many ways in which these laws have helped in the fight against terrorism. There are reports that at least 15 different terrorist plots have been thwarted by law enforcement agencies, thanks to the provisions in the act.

This brief history of The Patriot Act is just the tip of the iceberg. The next installment of this series will focus more on what the Patriot means to the lives of MC students.

– Melissa Faith Payne, Contributing Writer

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