Malcolm X Plaza under surveillance
September 24, 2008 8:32 PM
Discreet videotaping of campus events by the SF State Police Department has raised concerns among campus groups, many of whom say the monitoring will inhibit their ability to freely express themselves.
During events and rallies on campus, SF State police can be found perched behind a locked door on the terrace level of the Cesar Chavez Student Center with a video camera pointed at Malcolm X Plaza, capturing footage of students and speakers.
The footage is shot with the intention of protecting event attendees, speakers and police by providing hard evidence if someone is accused of a crime. The video recording can help prove or disprove the accusation and show if a police reaction was warranted, said SF State Police Chief Kirk Gaston.
Yet while Gaston said the footage is used for legal protection, the police presence is mounting concern among student groups and legal experts. Many said they are afraid the collection and storage of this footage will inhibit free speech and distance the public’s relationship with campus police.
“It’s an invasive feeling we get, knowing the police are watching,” said Evelan Gomez, a member of La Raza Student Organization. “It gives us a sense of un-trust because it feels like they are spying on us.”
While Gaston said he understands that the video recording can make some uncomfortable, he said there is a need for university officials to monitor and record campus events.
“I don’t want students, police officers and campus faculty to be faced with any allegation without having the ability to show how the event actually happened in its truest form,” Gaston said.
University police have shot footage of scheduled campus events for several years, and while there is constant monitoring, the recordings are not reviewed unless something illegal happens, Gaston said.
Because the student center is on public property, it is legal for police to videotape campus gatherings, said David Greene, an attorney and lecturer at SF State.
“At any public event there are no restrictions to videotaping,” Greene said. “Although it begs the question: is the accumulation of these videotapes for an improper purpose?”
Gaston said campus police keep the footage for about a week in case there is an allegation concerning something that happened at the event. The footage is then destroyed.
“If something comes into question, we use the footage,” Gaston said. “If there is no issue, the footage is not even reviewed.”
The videotaping has not led to any arrests, according to Gaston, although a district attorney used the footage to clarify an allegation of hate speech.
Regardless of the purposes of these tapes, legal experts say when police monitor and store footage of campus events it can have a chilling effect and can limit free speech.
“Any time the police are videotaping a group of people it raises concerns under the First Amendment,” said Michael Risher, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
Risher said the free flow of ideas and speech is crucial to our constitution and police monitoring can directly lead to people feeling unsafe to properly express themselves.
“Courts have held that government surveillance of speeches is intimidating,” Risher said. “People will be less likely to speak out and say something that may be controversial if they are being watched. People will also be afraid to attend the events.
“The California Supreme Court has held that police cannot collect and store unnecessary information about us, particularly when that information relates to free speech or First Amendment rights. There is a problem if campus police are retaining videotape of events where nothing illegal occurred.”
Gaston said that campus police are not compiling information.
“I don’t have a secret library of footage,” Gaston said. “I don’t have the capacity or the need for something like that.”
Different student groups have mixed opinions about the videotaping, but generally agree that the surveillance has drawbacks.
Hassan Aburish, Media Coordinator for the General Union of Palestinian Students, supports the police videotaping, but doesn’t necessarily agree with the method.
“It seems like they are trying to catch someone in the act, not prevent crime,” said Hassan Aburish. “I think it’s kind of shady that they are behind windows and all.”
The Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor feels the police surveillance is altering the way student groups conduct their gatherings.
“I feel like having police videotape and having the event under heavy surveillance may unnecessarily make the participants feel criminalized,” said Jeremy Villaluz, Head Coordinator for PACE. “It also alters the atmosphere of our celebration.”
While student organizations are feeling the effects of the police monitoring, Brian Gallager, a student actively involved in several campus organizations, said he is concerned with what sort of implications the video recording will have on the SF State community.
“The environment that has been created on campus is starting to breed suspicion and has been increasing tensions between police and students,” Gallager said. “There needs to be mutual respect and honesty between students and the police.”
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