Students, profs weigh security against personal freedom

Evan Hessel and Evan Hessel

Two teams of Northwestern students and professors debated how wire-tapping, e-mail surveillance and racial profiling can help in terrorist investigations, but also restrict personal freedoms and push society towards the sort of authoritarian regime depicted in George Orwell’s “1984.”

The event was the first of this year’s “Great Debates,” which are sponsored by the Office of the Provost. Associated Student Government President Jordan Heinz moderated the debate.

Political Science Prof. William Reno delivered the opening remarks for the affirmative team, arguing that recently legalized government surveillance promotes domestic spying. Reno said the Patriot Act signed by President Bush on Oct. 26 restricts civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.

Speech sophomore Lindsay Scherr and Weinberg sophomore LaTonya Starks discussed the effects of the Patriot Act on personal privacy and the freedom of the press.

Scherr said the Patriot Act allows federal agents to monitor the private phone conversations and Internet communications of thousands of Arab Americans suspected of being connected to terrorist groups. Scherr said this violation of privacy rights is contrary to the ideals that the government is trying to protect.

“We will have to make sacrifices of our freedom,” Scherr said, “but if we are giving up our freedom, what are we fighting for?”

Starks said that as a result of the recent legislation, the Bush administration has justified keeping journalists uninformed about the important actions of the U.S. military in Afghanistan against the Taliban.

But Speech junior Raja Gaddipati refuted Starks’ claim that the Patriot Act restricted the ability of the press to cover the war. He argued that the administration merely has urged the media to use caution in reporting the events of the war.

The team presenting the negative position, led by Cori Dauber, associate professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina, countered the argument against the Patriot Act.

“Rebalancing the way we treat security and freedom is not the same as creating a fascist regime,” Dauber said in her opening remarks.

She said national leaders must develop new tools to protect the nation from terrorism.

“Unlike the Cold War, this is not a right-wing fantasy,” Dauber said. “There were terrorist cells operating in this country and they hijacked four planes.”

She argued that the newly granted abilities of federal agents to monitor electronic conversations and freeze the assets of suspected terrorists are necessary to combat further violence.

Weinberg sophomore Tracy Carson said the investigations are based on behavioral profiling and are intended to protect the public.

After the debate, 17 of the 26 audience members voted that Dauber’s team presented their case most effectively.