Overstepping their Boundaries

Staging a protest for a cause is a part of the college experience, but recent rumors at UC Davis about the administration’s surveillance tactics have caused dissent among student protesters. In December 2010, students at Davis filed a report under the Freedom of Information Act and the California Public Records Act with the allegation that the administration was attempting to undermine and infiltrate their protest.

The group acted in response to its discovery of the “Student Activism Response Team” — originally created in August 2010 to supposedly protect student protesters during a protest that would have blocked a highway.

Consisting of 34 faculty members and administrators — many of them high ranking authorities like Chancellor Katehi — the publicly funded program worked with the police to anticipate illegal student activity by tracking protests through Facebook events, emails and general body meetings.

Members of the team regularly corresponded with the administration to alert each other about upcoming events. If a protest moved off campus, the administration would alert the police about the change in jurisdiction.

It’s understandable that the administration would seek to quell dissent amongst student protesters. Still, researching protests online and infiltrating them by sending administrators to monitor the situation suggests that the administration wants to prevent something that is wrong or illegal, while the right to peaceful protest cannot be stifled by the heavy hand of the administration.

UC Davis’ Privacy Policy clearly states that any information collected by the school includes “personal information such as name, date of birth, address, email address, telephone number(s) and/or educational interests. Such personal information may be requested for research, public service or teaching programs or for administrative purposes.” That policy is far too vague, opening the door to endless debate as to the meaning behind “administrative purposes” and “research.” It could stand to be based on more specific language, closing up ambiguities that could get students or the administration into a tight legal spot.

The breach of privacy went beyond simple Facebook stalking — though the 280 plus email records regarding Facebook profiles and events were a major component of the student’s grievances against the administration’s Big Brother power trip. Of course, the information that students choose to post up on Facebook is within the public domain, and it is certainly not illegal for administrators to obtain it. The main issue is that the UC Davis administrators did not stop just there.

Administrators in the “Student Activism Response Team” were responsible for monitoring student activity, with the expectation that they would report dissent to Student Judicial Affairs, should any occur in order to enforce disciplinary action.

Additionally, they were required to have staff support at every major student protest. They formed a support team — which also included student leaders — whose main function was to point out safety risks to protesters and accompany the protest, as well as maintain communication with administrators.

According to Eric Lee, a UC Davis senior, the administration went as far as bringing in an undercover cop to participate in the protests. When asked about her position in the faculty, the cop lied and claimed that she was in the neuroscience department. The administration has since announced that all officers will no longer hide their identities, but it has not ruled out the possibility that such agents will be hired in the future.

The administration’s actions at UC Davis carry strong implications for students across the UC system. Instead of bringing in uniformed local police to protests, the response team chose instead to send in a symbol of the administration’s distrust of student protesters.

Griselda Castro, UC Davis Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and team organizer, claims that “having a presence at student protests isn’t anything new” and that “we have not stopped activity. We have not infringed upon students’ rights to express themselves.” But that presence doesn’t equate to bringing in undercover agents. While administrators may not have outright prevented students from expressing their opinion, such covert surveillance methods are far more unsettling than outright administrative dissent.

Students at UCSD need to be vigilant about events occurring across other UC campuses in order to ensure that — especially given the events of last year’s “Compton Cookout” fiasco, which saw the largest protests on campus in over a decade — similar administrative surveillance does not become an issue at our campus.

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