Mayor Defends Surveillance of Muslim Students

As Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the NYPD's surveillance of Muslim students at colleges across the region, student groups and college officials spoke out, with some calling for an investigation of the NYPD.

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, Bloomberg said "the job of law enforcement is to make sure that they prevent things, and you only do that by being pro-active. You have to respect people's right to privacy, you have to obey the law, and I think the police officers across the country — and at a federal level, state level and city level — do that."

"We have to keep this country safe," he added. "It's a dangerous place."

An NYPD spokesman said the surveillance program conducted in-person and online at local colleges, as well as at Yale, Rutgers and the University of Pennsylvania, took place in 2006 and 2007. It was done because a dozen individuals who had been members of Muslim Students Associations had ultimately been arrested or charged with extremist acts, such as Anwar al-Awlaki and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the "Underwear Bomber."

However, some college officials pushed back against the city's reasoning.

In a statement, Richard Levin, the president of Yale, wrote that "police surveillance based on religion, nationality, or peacefully expressed political opinions is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States. Also I want to make sure our community knows that the Yale Police Department has not participated in any monitoring by the NYPD and was entirely unaware of NYPD activities until the recent news reports."

NYU spokesman John Beckman said the university understood the heavy responsibility the NYPDd had to safeguard New Yorkers from terrorist attacks. "That said, we hope that the Police Department is employing anti-terrorism tactics other than looking at the public websites of student groups, which at a university naturally raises privacy concerns on behalf of its students."

A spokesperson for Baruch College said that the administration had nothing to offer, regarding the latest revelations, but pointed to a statement made by President Mitchel Wallerstein in October, when initial reports of the surveillance surfaced. At the time he said, "We would consider this to be a violation of our most basic principles of inclusion, freedom of expression and the open, unrestricted pursuit of knowledge at the College."

Mostafa al-Alusi, the president of the Yale MSA, praised the Yale administration for its support, and said that Bloomberg and police officials had offered "a very flimsy defense" for the program.

"I think it is indicative of the same kind of mindset that justifies racial profiling and religious profiling, which this is a blatant example of. I don't think that MSA's can be stereotyped in any way," al-Alusi said.

The NYPD’s activities were clearly on the minds of students at area colleges. An editorial in Columbia University’s student paper, The Columbia Daily Spectator, argued that "this program’s invasion of privacy is disturbing, and its profiling is offensive" and that "Columbia should continue to pressure the NYPD to be more forthcoming about its surveillance."

On the Facebook page of NYU-Poly, several students criticized the surveillance, with one poster, Mohammad, warning others to "be careful of people around you and those who come to the MSA room for 'supposedly' praying," adding "I’m not saying that anything wrong is happening at our MSA, but NYPD and FBI will make up crap to entrap someone. We have seen it countless times."

Jawad Rasul, who unknowingly accompanied an NYPD informant during a whitewater trip organized by the City College Muslim Students Association, argued that surveillance "creates more hatred and thus creates an environment which allows "bad actors" to recruit more easily. It also creates lots of negative feelings towards, not only NYPD, but all the law enforcement agencies as a whole."

The Association of Muslim American Lawyers has called on the state's Attorney General to investigate the NYPD.