On October 29, 2015, the Gothamist broke the story of an undercover officer from the NYPD spying on Muslim students at Brooklyn College for the last several years. (The officer had gone to far as to pretend to have converted to Islam, according to the Gothamist.) As a follow up story in the Huffington Post pointed out, “It’s also unclear why Ser [the faux Muslim undercover agent] 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.”
In response to this latest spying incident–it is, unfortunately not the first time Muslim students at CUNY were targeted by the police–hundreds of students, staff, and faculty signed a letter to CUNY Chancellor Milliken asking him to make a clear statement opposing these undercover operations and requesting that he take steps to end them. As the letter points out, “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.”
Whatever one might think about Chancellor Milliken or the CUNY administration in general, one would assume that acceding to this simple request would be a no-brainer. Of course undercover police should not be on campus spying on and infiltrating Muslim student groups. Of course the university administration should work to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
But that’s not what happened. Milliken didn’t even bother to respond to the letter himself–he handed it off to his chief lawyer. And counsel’s response: “CUNY recognizes that the use of undercover officers in the context of political or religious groups can inhibit the free exercise of constitutionally protected rights. It is for that reason that limitations were imposed on that practice in Handshu. [He possibly is referring to Handschu]. The Mayor and Police Commission [sic] have publicly stated that the NYPD’s activities are conducted in compliance with those guidelines. If you know of evidence that the NYPD has violated them, you should bring it to the attention of the attorneys for the plaintiffs in that case.”
This last sentence is especially reprehensible. CUNY can be, admittedly, a DIY sort of place for faculty, staff, and students. (And apparently for administrators as well, given the lack of proofing in the response.) But this brings the DIY mandate at CUNY to a whole new level: do your own investigation. And if you do find evidence of a violation of the Constitution, don’t bother the CUNY Chancellor or the Office of Legal Counsel with that. Bring it to the plaintiffs’ attorneys in a case originally filed in the 1970s.