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Erica Shaps

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Muslim Students Have a Right to Privacy: An Interfaith Reflection

Posted: 02/24/2012 9:55 am

When I was on a Brandeis University Hillel first year retreat, it never crossed my mind that the police might be watching me. It sounds silly and irrational. However, after the Associated Press disclosed a New York Police Department (NYPD) program monitoring and investigating college students involved with Muslim Student Associations (MSAs) last week, this worry is entirely legitimate, especially for my Muslim peers across the Northeast.

I am a Jewish undergraduate born in the Chicago area attending college in Boston. Why does this matter to me?

I think about how much I cherish my campus' religious diversity. I recall the distrust directed at the Jewish community historically and feel obligated to speak out. As a student involved with religious life on campus, when I read about the NYPD's surveillance program I can't help but feel violated.

I was most appalled while reading that an undercover officer joined City College of New York Muslim Students on a rafting trip, wrote down their names and recorded how many times a day they prayed. On my retreat two years ago, I prayed three times a day. Does this make me more threatening? If I were Muslim and not Jewish, would my name be on a list filed with my local police department? My ability to send e-mails to the Hillel listserv without concern that someone may be reading them feels like a luxury.

It is particularly upsetting that these secret investigations happen on college campuses. Call me idealistic, but I see the university as hallowed ground: a unique space for young adults from incredibly diverse backgrounds to form a community around the shared values of education and open-mindedness. Two weeks ago, Brandeis Hillel and MSA hosted their second annual joint Shabbat dinner and Friday evening program. We exchanged stories and traditions and built relationships over shared food. This event, in direct contrast to the suspicion caused by excessive monitoring, represents the epitome of American values and academic ideals.

Yes, the NYPD has legitimate security concerns and a right to investigate potential threats. However, a broad surveillance of university MSAs, including those outside of New York, is excessive and unwarranted. Justice Louis Brandeis, my university's namesake, was a firm believer in the right to privacy. He was among the first to provide a legal framework for this concept in his landmark dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States. He wrote:

The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man's spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect ... They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone-the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.

Last week's news reveals how these words are as relevant in 2012 as in 1928. Although exceptions must be made in extraordinary circumstances, these should apply evenly to all groups. Muslim students have the right to form communities and practice their religious beliefs without being secretly monitored by institutions that were built to protect them.

Based on the facts currently available, not only do I think that the NYPD surveillance program is a violation of privacy and morally dubious, but I also believe that it is counterproductive. It is in the NYPD's best interest to create a climate of trust with all of its constituents. Due to ongoing concerns, this is arguably even more important with the Muslim community. The NYPD's actions only serve to further mutual distrust, breed animosity and discourage productive relationships and collaboration. Since Muslim American students may now justifiably fear that their country automatically views them as a national security threat due to their religion, they may hold negative views of law enforcement and become more reluctant to work with them.

In order to address their concerns regarding threats to national security, the NYPD would be better off working with Muslim students leaders, and all student leaders for that matter, to create an open channel of communication and cooperation. Instead of investigating secretly around school officials, they should work with administrations to ensure that security needs are addressed while students' right to privacy and campus culture are respected.

The NYPD and government need to know that singling out one group of people due to their religious beliefs is intolerable. If one segment of a university's population feels alienated and mistreated, the entire university needs to be concerned. An unjustified violation of one student group's privacy is a violation of all students' privacy.