Tuesday, February 24, 2004

News Story


Subpoenas alert universities

By Dmitri Pikman

Students participating in anti-war demonstrations at university campuses across the country have had a tense two weeks. The federal government first issued then retracted a subpoena to Drake University in Iowa, requesting the university produce the names of students who took part in an anti-war conference held at the school.

The federal government withdrew its subpoena request Feb. 10, but some educational officials are worried it might signify more government intrusion into higher education in the future.

Sally Frank, a law professor at Drake University, said even with the government withdrawing their subpoena requests, the fact that they asked for information should send up a red flag for the education community.

"The other question that rises out of this is will other universities be subpoenaed in the future, especially since this subpoena could very easily not have become a public matter," Frank said.

She added that she notified the National Lawyers Guild, the organization which sponsored the anti-war conference, about the subpoena the same day she received a copy of it.

The next day a judge issued a gag order on the university, forbidding Drake officials to talk about the incident.

The subpoena, issued Feb. 4, was connected to a Nov. 15 peace forum on the Des Moines-based Drake campus. The following day, an anti-war demonstration was held in front of nearby Camp Dodge, which houses units of the Iowa Army National Guard.

During that demonstration, 12 activists were arrested for trespassing. Federal investigators said last week their investigation was related to the trespassing and that they had issued a separate subpoena calling for the protesters to appear before a grand jury.

Brooke Benschoter, a Drake spokeswoman, said though the federal government was not requesting specific student records, it was still requesting private student information, which the school was reluctant to release.

"They didn't request particular student records, only wanted information on who attended the meeting at Drake; but we knew there was a very good chance that there were students in it," Benschoter said.

Drake wasn't the only school to attract government interest in recent weeks.

On Feb. 9, two Army officers came to the University of Texas Law School where they requested information on a conference that had been held on campus Feb. 4, concerning Islam and the law. The agents requested a roster of attendees and sought to interview the organizer of the event.

The National Lawyers Guild issued a statement Feb. 17 condemning the actions of the federal government in both Iowa and Texas.

"It appears that the government is stepping up surveillance of innocent activity at academic institutions," the statement read.

"Peace movements in universities were investigated back in the '50s and '60s," Frank said. "But the actions in Iowa and Texas signify a renewed governmental interest in student movements."

James Lafferty, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild chapter in Los Angeles, also emphasized the possibility of the federal government investigating events at other universities.

"We expect to see it happen in other institutions around the country. If I were a large institution with political groups on campus, I might anticipate finding myself in the same position," Lafferty said.

"I should think that they might be knocking on UCLA's door as well, and I hope that the school will respond by fighting the subpoena," he added.

Joseph Mandel, vice chancellor for legal affairs at UCLA, said the university takes its students' First Amendment rights seriously but that the school also has a responsibility to aid the national government in protecting national security.

"We have an obligation to disclose information, but we will not do so if we think it will violate FERPA or the Constitution," Mandel said, referring to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law protecting the privacy of student education records.

Drake University received an outpouring of support from many educational institutions nationwide following the subpoena requests.

"We have heard from lots of universities asking how we would handle it because it does impact the educational community," Benschoter said.

"The popular sentiment was that Drake should work hard to preserve the values of the free exchange of ideas and the discussion of issues, even if some of them might not be popular," she added.