Senators scrutinize bill alerting students to information releases

Elaine Helm

Associated Student Government senators are considering a bill asking Northwestern officials to notify students when they release personal information about them to law enforcement agencies, but some administrators said Thursday complying with the legislation may not be feasible.

Northwestern’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union Sen. Tina Valkanoff said she wrote the bill in direct response to federal terrorism investigations targeting some international students.

“I just thought it was important for students to be able to contact a lawyer,” Valkanoff, a Weinberg junior, said. “My basic imperative is that the administration has not spent much time on this issue.”

Information about students falls into two categories, University Registrar Suzanne Anderson said. Public or directory information, which includes names, local addresses and enrollment status, can be released without student consent unless the student requests otherwise.

If officials inquire about more detailed information on a student, the Registrar’s Office can only release it by a subpoena or court order.

The USA Patriot Act, which President Bush signed into law Oct. 26, changed the regulations that govern the release of student information. Students are no longer allowed to deny requests from law enforcement officials seeking information.

But Anderson said it would be unrealistic to notify students of every request because many are routine matters, such as potential employers verifying enrollment or that a student has earned a degree.

“There are only certain pieces of public information that we can release on a student,” Anderson said. “If every inquiry about students required notification, I couldn’t do it.

Last month, Anderson told The Daily that her office had provided the names and addresses of between five and 10 NU international students to government officials after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

University General Counsel Thomas Cline said that his office, which handles information requests by subpoena and court order, gives students between 10 days and two weeks notice before their information is released, unless notification is strictly prohibited in the request.

“If a request is made for specific information about students, we generally notify the students,” Cline said. “The issue is always balancing the rights of students under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and various other competing provisions.”

Associate Provost for University Enrollment Rebecca Dixon said notifying students when law enforcement officials request any information might cause students unnecessary anguish, since most inquiries are routine matters.

“There have been only a handful of inquiries to the registrar since Sept. 11, and usually nothing comes of it,” Dixon said. “The mere inquiry into a student is not cause for alarm.”

If Senate passes the bill next Wednesday, Dixon said administrators would have to consider the request before changing university policy.

Valkanoff said she was willing to hear the implementation concerns of the administrators before senators vote on the bill next week.

“I’m open to amending the bill based on what the administration thinks is feasible,” she said.

But Arab Cultural Society Sen. Hatim Ahmed said the students he represents support the bill.

“I think students have a right to know what’s being said about them in order to defend their own rights,” said Ahmed, a Weinberg junior. “It’s not so much an Arab thing. It’s a civil liberties thing, so I’m glad (ACLU-NU) decided to address the issue.”