Friday, July 9, 2010

Spying on University Activists

Infiltration of protest groups is nothing new.  But this story concerning University of Washington police officers conducting covert surveillance of student activists struck me as unusual.  From the story:
The school's Student Worker Coalition first learned that it had been infiltrated in April, when members saw one of the group's new adherents at her day job — as a uniformed University of Washington policewoman. At the time, the group had been planning a campus demonstration in support of custodial workers facing the prospect of having their night shift cut.
The ACLU of Washington released e-mails obtained through public-records requests that also showed that the officer, Tani Van Leuven, actively participated in an April 8 meeting and secretly monitored a meeting at a cafe a week earlier.
Protesters do not get very far under the First Amendment by arguing that surveillance of public events chills their free speech and assembly rights.  The Supreme Court rejected that  argument in Laird v. Tatum (1972).  Nevertheless, spying on college students who are engaged in planning a protest event is inconsistent with the commitment to free debate that most universities espouse.  As I point out in the book, elements of protest policing outside campus gates have steadily crept inside these unique spaces.  It's troubling that this tactic has now appeared on campus, where students may be particularly susceptible to intimidation by police.  University of Washington officials ought to condemn and strongly discourage this sort of spying on students.  


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