“To be surveilled by police in this way, it’s very disturbing.”
Over 100 faculty members of the City University of New York have signed a petition calling on the school’s chancellor to oppose surveillance of Muslim students by undercover New York City police officers.
“Such surveillance chills the atmosphere of free speech and open dialogue that educational institutions require, and it violates constitutional protections that require specific search warrants,” reads the petition, written in the form of a letter to CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken.
“You must formally state your opposition to these operations and work actively to stop them,” it continues. “Their continuation will be a great stain on the university.”
The petition comes a day after Gothamist published an investigative report by Aviva Stahl that revealed that an undercover NYPD officer who went by the name “Melike Ser” staged a conversion to Islam in 2011 at Brooklyn College, a CUNY school, in order to befriend and spy on law-abiding students in the school’s Islamic Society. For years afterwards, Ser frequented the group’s activities, and grew intimate with the members — in one case even being a bridesmaid at a student’s wedding — all while trying to elicit incriminating comments from the students in support of terrorism.
Earlier this year, an undercover investigation by Ser led to the arrest of two Queens women on terror charges. It’s unclear how the two women came into contact with Ser, or what role Ser played in the pair’s alleged plot to build a bomb.
It’s also unclear why Ser would need to spy on law-abiding CUNY students for two years in order to arrest the two Queens women, neither of whom matriculated at a CUNY school.
Gothamist’s report raises concerns that the NYPD may have violated what’s known as the Handschu agreement, which stipulates that police can spy on constitutionally protected activity — such as Brooklyn College’s Islamic Society meetings — only when there is credible information of criminal activity, and only after its surveillance plan is approved by an overseer called the Handschu authority.
Karen Hinton, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, told Gothamist in a statement that “investigations by the NYPD Intelligence Bureau follow the Handschu guidelines in accordance with a federal court ruling.”
“Both the Mayor and [NYPD] Commissioner Bratton are committed to keeping crime low, preventing terrorism and hate crimes,” Hinton continued. “With that comes the obligation to police fairly and constitutionally. We will never waiver from that commitment.”
In 2013, at the beginning of his term as mayor, de Blasio pledged to end the blanket surveillance of Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey that had been uncovered by a Pulitzer-Prize winning Associated Press investigation.
The NYPD may have also breeched a 1992 Memorandum of Understanding it made with CUNY, which allowed police to enter CUNY campuses in non-emergency circumstances only after getting the permission of CUNY officials.
It’s not clear if the CUNY administration permitted or had knowledge of the NYPD’s most recent undercover exploits. Chancellor Milliken didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
In 2011, a report by veteran NYPD reporter Len Levitt, published in The Huffington Post, revealed that between 2003 and 2006, the department had used undercover officers to monitor Muslim student groups at Brooklyn College. Levitt wrote that NYPD documents he uncovered did “not make clear whether the police had evidence or suspicions of criminality to justify” the spying.
After that episode, Karen Gould, Brooklyn College’s president at the time, denied knowing about the undercover officers and condemned “the alleged intrusion of the NYPD into campus life.”
“It’s troubling,” Anna Law, the Herbert Kurz Chair of Constitutional Rights at Brooklyn College, and a signee of Friday’s petition, told The Huffington Post. A college campus, she said, is “where students are supposed to have a safe environment and explore ideas and their identities. To be surveilled by police in this way, it’s very disturbing.”
Another signee, Corey Robins, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, urged his fellow faculty members to sign the petition Friday.
“Tolerating, actively or passively, undercover officers of the state on our campus, allowing them to spy on our students, to report back to the state what our students say, as they meet with their friends to share in their studies, swap their stories, figure out their faith, shoot the shit, or whatever it is that students do when they believe themselves to be among friends, is a betrayal. Of the worst sort,” he wrote in a blog post.
The petition comes one week after the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit against the NYPD over its surveillance of Muslim communities since Sept. 11.
“We have been down similar roads before,” the court wrote in its decision. “Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II.”
“We are left to wonder why we cannot see with foresight what we see so clearly with hindsight — that ‘loyalty is a matter of the heart and mind, not race, creed, or color,’” the court added.