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ACLU President Susan Herman Speaks at Political Science Convocation

Posted by: wichmannkm | February 12, 2015 | No Comment |

Susan Herman

The annual Political Science Convocation of Majors took place on February 5th in Sottile Theater. The department was fortunate to have Susan Herman, president of the American Civil Liberties Union and Centennial Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, speak about “Civil Liberties and the ‘War on Terror.’”

Herman’s talk focused on the time-period after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001,  when, according to Herman, the government “supersized laws and loosened the Constitution.” She provided a number of accounts over the past 14 years where the lives of American citizens, immigrants, and foreign students studying in the United States were disrupted because of FBI investigations.

For example, Herman shared the story of Sami al-Husayen, a Muslim graduate student studying at the University of Idaho, who organized a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of 9/11 and created a website to educate Americans on Islam. Al-Husayen wanted people to know more about his faith, understand that it is a peaceful religion, and that not all Muslims are terrorists.  When the FBI learned of al-Husayen’s efforts, they began investigating his finances and discovered that he had made charitable donations to support his faith. Even though there was no evidence that he was supporting terrorist efforts, al-Husayen was charged with “material support of terrorism.” When the FBI still could not prove their case against al-Husayen, they charged him with supporting terrorism because of information he posted on his website. Al-Husayen was later acquitted, but during this time he had spent 17 months in jail, never finished his doctorate, and his family had been deported.

Herman also talked about how the FBI questioned al-Husayen’s Arab and Muslim classmates. Abdullah al-Kidd, an American citizen who converted to Islam, saw this as an opportunity to educate the FBI on his religion and agreed to cooperate.  While he was in an airport, the FBI arrested al-Kidd as a “material witness” to al-Husayen’s trial. Al-Kidd had nothing to do with terrorism but was placed in solitary confinement, endured brutal conditions, and suffered severe psychological consequences. The ACLU represented al-Kidd and he was acquitted because the government did not have proof of probable cause.

To illustrate the point that the FBI’s investigations also affected non-Muslims, Herman shared the story of 19 year old American college student Nick George. While he was travelling to Philadelphia during a college break, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) detained him because he had Arabic flashcards in his backpack. As a Middle East Studies major, George was learning Arabic and thought that it would be advantageous to work on his language skills while travelling from California to Pennsylvania. George’s lawsuit was not settled until January 23rd of this year.

Department Chair Gibbs Knotts noted that “convocation is an opportunity for students and faculty to learn from a distinguished leader on a topic of national importance.” He thanked the department’s Intellectual Life Committee for organizing the event (particularly the chair of this committee, Dr. Chis Day) and emphasized that convocation is meant “to challenge our beliefs and inspire us to be critically engaged.”

Political Science Club president and sophomore Katherine Calabro, described Herman as “brilliant and inspiring.” She added, “I hope that she made as big of an impact on other students as she did on me.”

You can learn more about this topic in Susan Herman’s book Taking Liberties: the War on Terror and the Erosion of American Democracy and by visiting the ACLU website.

under: Events

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