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Thursday, June 20, 2024
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Student Records Subpoenaed by FBI

The records of at least one UB student has been subpoenaed as part of the FBI's investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks.

University Registrar Joanne Plunkett confirmed a UB student has already been investigated but did not release any further information, including whether the student is currently enrolled.

Student records at colleges and universities across the nation are being subpoenaed by the federal government. The information is not usually released without a student's written consent.

The records contain names, phone numbers, social security numbers, home and local addresses, disciplinary actions, foreign students' visa information and ethnicity statements, among other data.

Plunkett said investigators were likely interested in contact information such as the student's previous addresses and schools attended.

Provisions in the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act allow for student records to be released without consent in times of emergency to ensure the "safety of the citizenry," said Plunkett.

"These clauses are nice because they tell the students, when this information is being gathered, that it is not totally and absolutely confidential," said Lee Albert, a professor in UB's School of Law. "But they would be discoverable, obtainable by the federal grand jury even if it did not say that."

Unfortunately for students, very few - if any - grounds exist for legal challenges to federal grand jury subpoenas.

"Grand juries have extraordinary powers to investigate," said Albert. "Resisting a federal grand jury subpoena is really a non-starter, unless one could show up front that this is some enormous abuse of the powers of the grand jury by the prosecutor, and that would be exceedingly difficult to do."

Despite the fact that most of the information is readily available elsewhere, some students on campus feel that the government's legal action is excessive.

"It's definitely an invasion of privacy," said Heather Wesphal, a freshman computer engineering major. "If we allow some of our freedoms to be taken away, then the terrorists are accomplishing more than we thought."

Other students believe the federal government's decision to collect student records is understandable, and even desirable, in light of recent events.

"I definitely think that the government's interest outweighs the right to privacy," said Grace Carducci, a second-year law student. "Protection of the public good is much more important than privacy in this situation."

Some of the subpoenas have sought information on particular students, but other subpoenas are broader, according to the Sept. 28 Associated Press article that broke the story.

"At this point, I think a lot of it is them looking into the issue of student visas," said Mark Hurwitz, professor of political science. "They are looking for the people who come here under visa and then slip through the cracks."

"The government is trying to do this [investigation] on two fronts," said Hurwitz. "On one side, the grand jury investigation, and on the other, they are trying to enhance their powers by pushing this Patriot bill through Congress."

The "Patriot Act," bipartisan compromise legislation currently under consideration by the U.S. House of Representatives, would grant federal investigative agencies much broader powers in the process of information gathering.

One of the legislation's goals is to increase wiretapping capabilities. Doing so would allow the government to tap not only home and work phone lines but also monitor cell phones, pagers, e-mail accounts and phone cards.

The Patriot Act excludes provisions sought by Attorney General John Ashcroft that would have allowed the release of all student records to authorities, according to an Oct. 2 Washington Post article.



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