ACLU president Susan N. Herman has a bite-sized term for the 2001 law known as the USA Patriot Act, which is helpful, because its full name –the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001– is, she said, “an Orwellian mouthful” that runs some 300 pages.

“I call it the supersized surveillance act,” she told 50 Suffolk Law School students on March 3, 2016, during the Suffolk University Law Review’s annual Donahue Lecture Series, which is in its 36th year. And if the lawyers-to-be imagined that the Supreme Court would be there to rescue civil liberties from the act’s excesses, she added, “The fact is the court has been absent.” She has coined another term for what she calls the judicial branch’s overall inaction: “Ab(ju)dication.”

Herman, a New York University Law School graduate who was elected president of the ACLU in 2008, walked her audience through a litany of cases in which, she said, citizens were seized, due process rights violated, and speech itself muzzled, all as a result of government actions that the federal courts upheld by citing of the broad powers and language of the Patriot Act.

She pointed to the case of Abdullah al-Kidd, a Kansas native who had converted to Islam and wanted to aid the FBI in gaining insights into Muslim-Americans after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The bureau, she said, was pursuing a separate trumped-up Patriot Act case against a Muslim student, Sami al-Husayen, who had merely posted information about Islam on his web site. (Al-Husayen was acquitted but spent 17 months in jail and his family was deported.) While en route to Saudi Arabia in 2003, al-Kidd was seized as a “material witness” in the al-Husayen trial. Although he had no links to terror groups and was never called to testify, he was held in solitary confinement for 16 days, shackled, strip-searched and subjected to physical and psychological trauma, Herman said.

The ACLU obtained al-Kidd’s release and supported his 2005 lawsuit against then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, asserting that the FBI arrest was a pretext to detain al-Kidd and try to tie him to terrorism. The suit was one of a handful of Patriot Act-related cases the Supreme Court has agreed to hear over the years, but in 2011 the court reversed a federal circuit court and ruled that al-Kidd could not sue the government despite his ordeal.

"Our ancestors who wrote the Fourth Amendment feared the potential for political repression, selective use of power, and, ultimately, a police state,” said Herman, who writes about al-Kidd and other cases in her 2011 book on the surveillance state, “Taking Liberties: The War on Terror and the Erosion of American Democracy.”

She talked as well about the “library provision” of the Patriot Act, which lets the government demand that custodians of records – including librarians, schools, social work institutions, and internet service providers with access to material in cloud-based storage—turn over those records without having to explain to a court why they want them. “Is it still a democracy,” she asked, “if the government knows everything about us, and we know nothing about them?”

The speech, organized by Law Review editor-in-chief Eliza Bailey (2016), executive editor Patrick Archambault (2016), and lead articles editor Erin Knight (2016), had a disquieting effect of the audience. Herman acknowledged it was a “depressing but necessary” discussion.