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Inside Politics

Activists on Missouri campus split on Patriot Act

By Chris Blank
Special to CNN

Protesters gather in Jefferson City while Ashcroft visits the Missouri capital in February.
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COLUMBIA, Missouri (CNN) -- The Iraq war, jobs and the economy have overshadowed the contentious issue of the Patriot Act during this year's presidential election, but it has not been completely overlooked by activists on the University of Missouri campus.

College Democrats object to the act, touted by two-term Missouri governor and former senator Attorney General John Ashcroft, but believe the average voter doesn't care or know much about it.

"I really don't think it's going to be that big of a deal in the election," College Democrats President Caleb Lewis said.

Nevertheless, Lewis said his group will try to educate people on campus and around the Columbia area by distributing information about the successes and failures of the law.

President Bush has called on Congress to renew and expand the law before it expires next year. In 2001, the Patriot Act passed in the U.S. Senate 98-1.

Among other things, the act relaxes restrictions on information-sharing between U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officers and authorizes "roving wiretaps," so that law enforcement can get court orders to wiretap phones a suspected terrorist might use.

"There are massive abuses of civil liberties. I don't know the last time we've seen something this serious," Lewis added.

Despite the Bush administration's view of the Patriot Act as an anti-terrorism tool, opponents cite provisions allowing a single search warrant to tap multiple telephone lines as an example of the problems.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union also object to the provision that allows the government to detain non-U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism for up to seven days without charges.

"But the Patriot Act does have some good things, like increasing the penalties for terrorist attacks, increasing the statute of limitations for terrorism offenses, and increased money laundering restrictions," Lewis said.

College Republicans President Brian Johnson said his organization has not taken an official stance but said he believed the majority of the members support the law.

"In any open society, there is going to be a continuum between freedom and security, and I think any debate about how to strike that balance is a good debate," Johnson said. "I do believe the Patriot Act strikes a good balance, but I'm also a Libertarian at heart. I want to hear good arguments on both sides."

Johnson said the debate has been disappointing because opponents have substituted exaggeration for fact.

"I went to a presentation by the [American Civil Liberties Union] about the Patriot Act really wanting to hear a clear argument against the Patriot Act, but the woman who introduced the speaker was a complete leftist who said we got hit on September 11 and then we got hit again by John Ashcroft," Johnson said. "That kind of hyperbole and rhetoric just doesn't make sense."

Lacking knowledge

While the College Republicans and Democrats debated some of the implications of the Patriot Act on foreign policy in the first of several scheduled debates, many students only know that the law exists.

"I agree with the idea of increasing security, but I think that maybe it's going overboard, but I really don't know very much about it," M.U. senior Marsha Oo said.

"I'm not really familiar with it because I have just heard of it from my mom watching the news," freshman Greg Williams said. "It sounds interesting, and I want to learn more."

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