Too much could be made of a federal judge's decision last week to strike down part of the Patriot Act. The ruling went more toward parts of law that have existed elsewhere for nearly 20 years to aid federal law enforcers. It left most of the act untouched.
But too little may be made of it as well. Judge Victor Marrero was adamant that the part he struck down has "no place in our open society." And that seems abundantly clear, regardless of where it is found in law. The same could be said for other parts of the act.
Marrero struck down a provision that allows investigators to obtain a subpoena known as a national security letter, which would require Internet providers to give personal information about their subscribers. It also bars them from telling anyone they have received the subpoenas, and it appears to keep them from discussing the matter even with their own attorneys. In addition, investigators can obtain these subpoenas without court review.
Supporters of the Patriot Act like to say the law gives police the ability to go after terrorists with the same zeal they go after other criminals. They credit the law for keeping America safe since the attacks of 9/11 and for breaking up so-called terrorist sleeper cells and infiltrating plans to cause further harm.
But then, law enforcement, by its nature, tends to lean toward the notion that ends justify means, so long as the bad guys are caught. The Founding Fathers, however, included safeguards in the Constitution to protect citizens against abuses. The delicate balance between those two interests has been open for debate ever since.
Indeed, much of the Patriot Act has been legitimately helpful in the fight against terrorism. But parts of it go too far beyond the nation's time-honored, founding principles. They leave a law-abiding public with little more than a hope that no one in power will abuse sweeping privileges.
For example, Section 215 of the Patriot Act removes many of the public's protections against the government's ability to collect personal information. So long as the government believes the information is needed as "part of an authorized investigation to protect the United States from international terrorism," it has broad powers to obtain information about you from sources including video rental stores and libraries. While the law expressly prohibits police from targeting someone who is merely exercising free speech rights, it is far too sweeping in its scope.
The government ought to be able to pursue terrorists without putting civil liberties at risk. Otherwise, we trust other judges will chip away at the Patriot Act as new cases are brought forth.