Rep. James Sensenbrenner '68 presents history of USA Freedom Act to Kastenmeier audience

With the passage of the 2001 Patriot Act, Congress sought to bolster national security efforts against domestic terrorism. Americans generally favored the legislation at the time, but by 2015, more began expressing concerns about provisions in the law that could violate their constitutional right to privacy.

  Rep. James Sensenbrenner

On October 2, law students, faculty and judges alike came together to hear Rep. James Sensenbrenner discuss the role he played in addressing those concerns through the USA Freedom Act, signed into law last summer. A 1968 Law School graduate, Sensenbrenner represents Wisconsin’s 5th congressional district.

He was at the Law School to present “A History of the USA Freedom Act” for the annual Robert W. Kastenmeier Lecture. He introduced the House version of that bill in January, just months before the Patriot Act was set to expire.

American suspicion of government overreach peaked in 2013, after CIA analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified information about the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection program. Snowden had exposed how, in the interest of thwarting terrorist attacks, the Patriot Act went beyond stepped-up airport security to allow for the massive collection of citizens’ phone data.

Sensenbrenner, the author of both the Patriot and the USA Freedom Acts, believed the NSA program represented an abuse of federal power, while at the same time feeling that most counterterrorism measures needed to be preserved. “Just as we cannot be naive to security threats to the American people, we would be equally naive to not acknowledge encroachments on civil liberties,” he told the UW Law School audience.

One major reform Sensenbrenner proposed through new legislation was an improved standard of relevance. In other words, the new law would require the NSA to prove to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that all data it wished to collect was relevant or related to a legitimate investigation into terror activity.

In May, as the expiration of provisions of the Patriot Act loomed, lawmakers warned that the nation’s safety could be compromised. Tensions in Congress came to a head, Sensenbrenner said, and the debate over the right balance between counterterrorism efforts and individual privacy raged on.

The USA Freedom bill was originally rejected in the Senate, but a new version was introduced to the Judiciary Committees of the House and the Senate. It was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on June 2, the day after the Patriot Act expired.

The legislation remains controversial, however. Some Americans view data collection as essential to protecting the American public, while others feel their civil liberties are still at risk.

“People who condemned me for passing one of these acts, praised me for the other and vice versa. We tried to protect the American people as much as possible without violating their rights,” Sensenbrenner said.

The Kastenmeier Lecture honors the notable contributions of Robert W. Kastenmeier to the legal fields of intellectual property, corrections and civil liberties. Kastenmeier, who passed away in March, was a graduate of UW Law School and a U.S. Congressman.

Submitted by Olivia Grych on October 30, 2015

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