The Patriot Act: Liberty or Security, or Both?

The Patriot Act: Liberty or Security, or Both?
Laura Bush: Law, Politics and Govt

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: One Week


As the U.S. government tries to fight terror through increasing the means of surveillance, critics raise issues of individual liberty, including the right to privacy and the right to avoid unwarranted searches and seizures. Of particular interest and heated debate has been the provision in the Act that would allow the government to access patron records at public and private libraries without warrants.  Is this Act necessary to the nation’s security, or an invasion of civil liberties?


Students will research the U.S.A. Patriot Act and the debates surrounding it, and then engage in a debate on the issues and a vote on its future.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; paper and pencils or pens.


1.  First, have students use the websites listed below to example the history and elements of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, including:

  • What does the acronym “U.S.A. Patriot Act” stand for?
  • What is its purpose?
  • What are its major provisions?
  • What have been some controversial uses of the Act?
  • What Section of the Act has been severely criticized by the American Library Association and other interested parties? On what basis have they criticized it?

2.  Then, have students read the article, “The Patriot Act: What is the Proper Balance Between National Security and Individual Rights?” 

3.  Next, ask students to research the first lawsuit against the Patriot Act, and the status of that lawsuit, and answer the following questions:

  • What is the basis of the lawsuit?
  • Why is it the ACLU bringing the suit rather than some other organization?
  • Where does the suit stand today?

4.  Divide the class into four groups and assign each group the reading of three “pro” or three “con” views of the Patriot Act found near the end of the Wikipedia discussion of the Patriot Act:
Supportive Views (Pro)

The Patriot Act and Related Provisions: The Heritage Foundation's Research

Patriot Hysteria - The "Zacarias Moussaoui Protection Act", article by Rich Lowry, National Review

In Defense of the Patriot Act by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT)

Patriot Act 101 by Jon Thibault, FrontPage Magazine

The Patriot Act under Fire by law professors John Yoo and Eric Posner, December 23, 2003

The Patriot Act, Reauthorized, JURIST
Critical Views (Con)

PATRIOT Games: Terrorism Law and Executive Power, JURIST

American Library Association's Resolution on the PATRIOT Act

Jennifer Van Bergen, Repeal the Patriot Act A six-part series analysing the Act.

Electronic Frontier Foundation's detailed analysis of the Act, October 27, 2003

Statement Of U.S. Senator Russ Feingold On The Anti-Terrorism Bill, October 25, 2001

Analysis of the Patriot Act: PEN American Center
5.  Ask each group to carefully note the arguments for and against the Act in all their readings, and decide whether any given argument falls into the “national security” or the “individual liberty” category.
6.  When the research is complete, ask each group to present its findings, and then participate in a debate about the U.S.A. Patriot Act around the following questions:

  • How does the Patriot Act define "domestic terrorism"?
  • Do you think participants in public protests could ever be accused of "domestic terrorism" under this definition? Why or why not?
  • The Justice Department has proposed that the government should be able to ask a court to revoke the citizenship of any American who provides "material support" to terrorists. Do you support the proposal? Why or why not?
  • Do you believe that the Patriot Act goes too far on the side of “security” and, in fact, serves to threaten “individual liberty”?  Why, or why not?

7.  As a concluding activity, take a vote in the class about the future of the U.S.A. Patriot Act.

Extending the Lesson:

Create an informational website “U.S.A. Patriot Act: Fact and Fiction” to showcase the findings and the debate about the Patriot Act as it has occurred in class.

Sources & Resources:


The USA Patriot Act 

USA Patriot Act on Wikipedia

Libraries and the USA Patriot Act

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

Legal Documents in the ACLU Library Case

Controversial Uses of the USA Patriot Act

ALA Patriot Act Articles, Issues, and History


This lesson was developed by Marian Maxfield, Kent State University, with some help from the Constitutional Rights Foundation's lesson on the Patriot Act.