| By Jennifer Wilmore and Jeff Zethmayr |
Two weeks into his term as SIPA’s Interim Dean, Robert Lieberman expressed concerns over the “chilling effect” that policies like the New York Police Department’s reported surveillance of Muslim students can have on universities, saying that it stifles creative thought and research.
The Associated Press released a report on February 18th indicating that as recently as 2007, the NYPD’s Cyber Intelligence Unit monitored the websites of Muslim student groups daily at universities in New York, including Columbia. Schools beyond city limits were also monitored, and in some cases, the NYPD embedded undercover officers and informants in Muslim student groups to report on their activities, according to the Associated Press.
“It’s really unfortunate that students were targeted, not on the basis of actual suspicion as to their activities, but on the basis of their religion,” Lieberman told Communiqué. It is important for students to feel comfortable saying what they think, he said, adding, “That’s the lifeblood of a university. A school that can’t protect that kind of space is falling short of its responsibility to its students.”
University President Lee Bollinger expressed similar sentiments in response to the news.
“We are deeply concerned about any government activity that would chill the freedom of thought or intrude upon student privacy, both of which are so essential to our academic community,” Bollinger said in a statement sent to university officials and student leaders on February 21st.
Columbia’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) said it was “disappointed and distressed” by the news in a statement released on February 22nd, and that it was “disturbed that the NYPD has justified these discriminatory acts—including the blatant use of tactics that identify potential targets solely off of nationality, ethnicity, or creed.”
In defense of the NYPD’s actions, police spokesman Paul Browne referred the AP to a list of 12 people who at one time had ties with Muslim student associations and have been arrested or convicted on terrorism charges in the U.S. and abroad. In light of these ties, “the NYPD deemed it prudent to get a better handle on what was occurring at MSAs,” Browne said in an email.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg was unapologetic about the NYPD’s tactics. “We have to keep this country safe,” he said. “This is a dangerous place.” According to Bloomberg, law enforcement’s responsibility is to “prevent things,” and it can only do that by being proactive.
It may come as a surprise that some Muslim students might agree with these justifications.
“I don’t really mind the surveillance,” said Aly Jiwani, a first-year MIA student and Muslim American who says he was active in his campus MSA during his undergraduate studies. “If people arrested in the past have had ties to or have been radicalized at campus MSAs, then I don’t mind the police conducting proactive due diligence,” he said, “as long as it is done using legal methods.”
Jiwani said he has never felt the need to censor himself inside or outside of the class due to surveillance concerns.
According to a report by the Columbia Spectator, however, some students have “expressed fear of going to and speaking in class, in case they were recorded on a laptop or cell phone” and have even been cautious about what Internet searches they perform, presumably out of fear that it may be misinterpreted as radical or fundamentalist.
The MSA organized a town hall meeting the week after the AP released its report to give students an opportunity to discuss their reactions to the news. A Communiqué reporter attended the town hall, but organizers told the crowd at the meeting’s close that all statements made were off the record, underscoring the sense of fear and suspicion that has accompanied news of the surveillance.
Maliha Tariq and Rhonda Shafei, student members of the MSA, later released a statement on behalf of the MSA describing their frustration with President Bollinger’s response to the news of the surveillance, saying his initial statement was “vaguely phrased” and should have been sent by email to all students. “We will not feel secure on this campus until the University receives full information on the degree to which Columbia’s campus was and is monitored,” they said.
In an apparent response to these criticisms, President Bollinger released a second statement to all students and held a fireside chat with a limited number of invited students on February 27th. Columbia also organized a university-wide town hall meeting on February 28th with administrators such as Provost John Coatsworth present.
President Bollinger said in his second statement that, unlike at other schools, “There has been no suggestion that the NYPD surveillance at Columbia extended beyond the monitoring of websites,” adding that the university and Public Safety had no prior knowledge of or involvement in the surveillance.
Despite wide criticism, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said that he is “committed to doing what we have to do, certainly as long as we’re doing it pursuant to the law.” He does not plan to apologize for the NYPD’s actions and says the department will continue to utilize surveillance tactics to keep the city safe.
Lieberman said he hopes the outcry against the NYPD’s surveillance will be an impetus for further discussion on the balance of security concerns and freedom of speech.
“I’d like SIPA to be a place where we can confront this issue. Hopefully this can be the occasion for a conversation,” he said, adding that he hopes to see events at SIPA approaching the surveillance scandal from an academic viewpoint in the coming weeks.
“SIPA is the policy school of the university,” Lieberman said, “and if we’re not going to convene this discussion, who will?”
Jennifer Wilmore is a second-year Master of International Affairs student, and Jeff Zethmayr is a first-year Master of Public Administration student.