Student Associations and Privacy

October 11, 2011

Political Theory


As I read through the Huffington Post today, I found an article about the privacy rights of Muslim Student Associations at a few colleges in New York City. What follows is a brief summary of the situation.

Investigators have been infiltrating Muslim student groups at Brooklyn College. This was part of a secret NYPD intelligence effort to investigate Muslim communities. Police have gathered all kinds of information on businesses that tend to cater to Muslims. Undercover officers attended events put on by and for Muslim students, and the NYPD’s Cyber Intelligence Unit monitored websites and chat rooms for Muslim students.

Students say that their clubs offer them a “quiet place to worship on a busy campus”, as well as friends to hang out with, play sports with and talk to. Police are interested mainly by any signs of Salafism, which is a branch of fundamentalist Islam. Some of the student associations endorse Salafi speakers, and may not always get them approved before hosting them at their school.

Apparently in some cases NYPD detectives told campus police they were investigating drug or gang cases, and sometimes were able to gain access to student records, which may be a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. If this is true, then these schools could lose all of their federal funding (including research funding, scholarships, etc.)

Part of what the NYPD has said concern them are ”militant paintball trips”, which alleges that these associations could potentially be using paintball as a way to simulate combat training.

This whole situation relates to what we talked about in class today, what information is public and what is private. In the last few blog posts, some people have mentioned how our affiliations can add diversity to a campus and bring us together, so does that mean that our student group affiliations are public? Or is it possible for them to be private?

Furthermore, can what the NYPD has done be considered profiling of any sort? Is this an invasion of privacy? Do these investigations go against the basic freedoms that are granted to our citizens?

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8 Comments on “Student Associations and Privacy”

  1. ywjpeter Says:

    On one hand, I think that the NYPD had a right to investigate the situation, and the group. The justification of the investigation of the group depends upon how you look at organizations. Are they a public or private part of ones life. If public, than the NYPD had every right to investigate and find about more about the group and what they were doing. The one aspect that seems eerie about the whole situation is that, was there a clear or present danger. To not have a warrant and not be presented with a clear or present danger would make the investigation unjustified and not right.

    The school on the other hand, had no wisdom of the situation therefore was just cooperating authority. They should not be denied funding for research and for school from the government because of this action. They were told by authorities to show them student profiles, and to cooperate they gave in.

    NYPD on another level was racially profiling these students. What ever happened to being innocent being proven guilty. The students have no past wrongdoings and just because they went to play paintball and are Muslim they are considered to have used it as part of combat training. The absurdity and ridiculousness of the situation is profound and unimaginable. Basic freedoms weren’t taken away but it is a crude act by the NYPD.

    Even though a group can be seen as a public entity, as where the government can look into and retrieve information about, it should be still immune to being racially profiled against. The NYPD was unjustified in its actions to investigate a group because they were looking for “radical” Muslim groups. The school was not wrong as to cooperate with authority but wrong in the sense that they were not questioning the authorities.

  2. madelinedunn Says:

    This is a tricky situation. On one hand, the group should always have their campus speakers approved by the school before hosting them. On the other hand the fact that the student association hosts Salafi speakers does not necessarily mean that they are posing a threat to other students or faculty on campus. This type of organization was set up to offer students with a “quiet place to worship on a busy campus”. Now the question is whether worship is public or private.

    I believe that the student’s right to worship as a group should be able to be kept private within their organization. However, there seems to be enough information about this case that has leaked to prove that it is in fact now a public matter. We are blogging about it right now; not so private anymore even if it was to begin with.

    It is important to note that there is no reason for their school records to be released without any probable cause. The school should be upholding this whether it is for the sake of their own funding or for the student’s privacy. The NYPD shouldn’t go searching for information within a particular group without first being presented with a threat. Although the paintball trips may pose suspicion, it is a bit farfetched to then make the jump to simulating “combat training”.

    In the end the student’s right to worship should be kept a private matter unless they themselves decide to make it public.

  3. Brian Hall Says:

    This case is complicated by the fact that there are two controversies involved; the legal aspect of privacy, and the potential for racial profiling, and hence prejudice.

    I personally value the right of privacy highly, and so am naturally suspicious of the government’s interference into our daily lives. Interestingly, there really is no right to privacy guaranteed by the constitution. Though you do have rights regarding your property (specifically denying people entrance into your domicile), if you think that information you put on the internet is ever private, then you are misinformed. There is always a fine line between allowing federal intelligence agencies enough room to do their job adequately, and respecting the privacy of individuals. Pragmatically, you are always going to tread on somebody’s toes, wherever you set the limits. In this way, the devil is in the details. Because privacy is so precarious, each case needs to be intimately examined before a verdict can be deliberated upon; universal philosophical principles will do little good here.

    Whether there were legitimate risk factors here, including evidence of support of Salafism among other things, is the operative factor. If the NYPD simply chose to start observing Muslims without prior knowledge of risks, then I, along with most free thinking people, would take serious issue with their actions. From the information given, I find it difficult to make a strong decision either way, but I am certainly suspicious.

  4. sarahspath23 Says:

    As a student who is involved in various student organizations on campus, my initial response to reading this post is that the NYPD did not have the right to attend events and go undercover within the Muslim Student Associations. If a police officer was undercover at my organization’s meetings and events, I would feel like my privacy was violated.

    However, I do believe that student organizations are not private. Student organizations on campus are a way to meet people with similar interests and goals and express those interests. They must register with the school and comply with the school’s rules and regulations. Many times student organizations advertise their clubs and events on campus, which open their organizations up publicly. Additionally, organizations have mission statements and additional information on the internet that is publicly available. All of this leads me to believe that student organizations are public.

    So where does my natural instinct to be upset about the actions of the NYPD come in? Although I feel as though student organizations are public, it does not mean that they should not have a right to privacy. All people have a right to privacy to a certain extent and by having police undercover, it is betraying a trust that I have in law enforcement. I think part of the reason why I disagree with the actions of the NYPD is because it feels like they have come to the conclusion that it is alright to violate a student organization’s privileges and privacy due to their religious affiliations.

    A news article will not usually mention the specifics of any case and may not even get the story completely correct all the time, but I wonder what kind of evidence, if any, the NYPD had to support that the actions or plans of action of these Muslim Student Associations could potentially lead to something harmful. If these student associations were simple practicing their faith, isn’t that what we have freedom of religion for? It seems strange to me to make an exception to this freedom for one specific religion.

    I can understand if the NYPD has specific tangible evidence that the practices of this organization could lead to harmful consequences. However, is being undercover justified in this case or is there another way to go about the investigation? I don’t know because it is a situation where freedoms and rights that all Americans are entitled to conflict with the possibility of harmful side effects. In any case, I do think that the NYPD would need sufficient evidence before violating this group’s privacy in addition to violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Especially in the latter violation, I believe that the evidence on these associations should be almost indisputably strong before going any further in the investigation.

    Overall, I think colleges are a place where students can find people with similar interests and be able to express their diversity, as long as it is not harming others. This also goes back to Mill’s argument as well about the necessity of freedom of expression in all cases, even if we disagree strongly because the diversity of opinion can open our eyes up to new possibilities or solidify our beliefs. Mill does recognize that there needs to be a clause to this rule in the event that the expression causes harm to others.

    It may be slightly suspicious that the organization did not get approval for some of their controversial speakers, but is this reason enough to warrant undercover police and invasion of privacy through accessing records of the students? I don’t think it is but I do believe that the organization should follow the rules of the school that all other organizations must follow.

    Therefore, unless the NYPD had significant evidence that the beliefs and actions of the Muslim Student Associations could lead to the harm of others, they should not have violated the group’s right to practice their religion and their right to privacy both within the group and the school.

  5. namin91 Says:

    After reading this article, I feel as though a line was cross and that basic rights were violated. We, as citizens of this country, have a constitutional right to free assembly and to practice religion without government interference. The students were doing just that. I think it is wrong of the NYPD to investigate them when there doesn’t seem to be any legitimate reason for concern. The idea of “militant paintball trips” is ridiculous and highly improbable.

    There are so many different organizations involving different religions, and the NYPD’s actions seem like that of blatant prejudice to me. When was the last time Christian, Jewish, Hindu, etc. organizations were investigated for anything? Student organizations at any university should be regulated by the university. It is not the job of the police to investigate or get involved in these organizations. It is also not the right of the police to meddle in a student’s choice of worship.

    Not only does this violate rights, but it intensifies the divide of “Us” and “Them” even further, which doesn’t help anyone in this country.

  6. ljgoslin Says:

    To me the whole ordeal with the officers infiltrating the Muslim student associations is just absurd and quite frankly, racist. Although this college is a public institution and the student groups are funded by the college, they should still be private. To me, this group is mainly culture and religious based. I think they have a right to practice their religion and their activities without worrying about the police spying on them. The fact that a paintball trip is a threat to US National Security is ridiculous to me. They are training to be terrorists? Really? Kids are kids, they like to have fun. College kids are no exception to this rule. “Militant only means that it is extreme paintball. If any other cultural group had that same event they wouldn’t have been seen as a threat. Their privacy has no right to be violated until their is a more serious threat. This racism that the US has projected unto all Muslims since 9/11 is a giant paradox. Our racism fuels their hate towards our culture, then we become more suspicious and the cycle goes on and on. All Muslims are not terrorists, and infiltraiting student groups is just reflecting that idea. College kids should be the least of their worries too. The US needs to stop violating a right that was the base of our country. Our society should be moving forwards, not backwards.

  7. brianfrankel Says:

    An important question raised by this post is whether or not the NYPD is serving the public good through its actions. In essence, there is more than one public being discussed in this issue. We have the student public, the officers themselves, and New York City itself. I do believe that what the police did was racial profiling, which is certainly wrong. Yet–as we have seen many times before–sometimes it takes a wrong to prevent a greater wrong. It is sad that past circumstances have dictated that police and security personnel use racial profiling to help “protect” our country, but I am not sure if that means it should not still be used.

    As long as the rights of the students so guaranteed by our laws are not being violated, then I think that it is within the right of the police to take all measures necessary to prevent attacks on American soil. Student organizations are, in my opinion, public entities that are supposed to be working for the public good. While we would hope that this would not have to be monitored, as long as it does not interfere with the group and does not wrongly convict any individuals that are innocent, I do believe that it is in the best interest for the majority of the public to monitor groups that professional security forces believe may be dangerous.

  8. adamstillman2011 Says:

    I think that Student Associations fit right between private and public. If you are going to be a student organization with the name of the university in the name like my organization, Michigan Mock Trial, then you are stepping into the public. At competitions and during recruitment we represent the University of Michigan and therefore are subject to the criticism of others.

    There are also private aspects of our organization such as practices, conflicts, and social gatherings. These events and occurrences stay within the confines of the team, and we don’t really share them with other people. I believe that this privacy is part of the reason why people join teams. Like Putnam says, we all benefit from the sense of community. We look for a group of people that we can align with, and have a distinct private community within an association.

    I think that the incident with NYPD is a very sticky situation. It brings out all of the points of contention that came about surrounding Muslim Americans following the September 11th attacks. It also causes me to wonder whether or not the same measures would be taken if this organization was made up of Caucasian students. Would their paintball trips be characterized as “militant”?

    I spent time thinking about why the NYPD chose this course of action,and utilitarianism came to mind. Maybe they thought that it was in the best interest of more people to investigate this group, and it was worth offending these students. They were willing to take the risk on the rare chance something dangerous was going on. I disagree with what they did and I think that it could qualify as profiling, but maybe Utilitarianism is what they used to justify it.

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