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Davis, California

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Efforts to monitor activism extend across UC system

University of California students are accusing administrators of infiltrating their protests, leading to questions about First Amendment rights within the public university setting.

At a UC Davis protest on March 2, students discovered a police officer – Joanne Zekany – dressed in plain clothes, communicating with administrators and other police officers about the protesters’ plans. Later, public record requests confirmed the existence of a team of administrators and staff charged with monitoring protests.

Other documents reveal that UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz have their own ways of responding to and surveying student activism. UC Berkeley Student Affairs administrators and staff monitor demonstrations and have a group named The Crisis Team. While both campuses utilize video and photo surveillance at events, UC Santa Cruz went one step further last spring by spending $6,000 to hire a private investigator.

Officials say these actions are consistent with the University of California’s policy on Speech and Advocacy, in which campuses are to protect free expression, speech and assembly, as well as maintain normal university business and ensure safety.

How to go about doing this is up to each campus, said Eric Heng, policy and program analyst at the UC Office of the President. Some campuses establish an official team, while others act depending on the circumstance. Heng also said that UC President Mark Yudof and UCOP don’t organize these efforts.

Students discover the UC Davis Student Activism Team

After filing a California Public Records Act request, a group of students received over 280 pages of public documents, which proved that UC Davis Student Affairs administrators and staff had formed a Student Activism Team in August of 2010.

According to a document dated Nov. 1, 2010 and detailing the team’s protocol, the team is to provide a presence at campus protests, monitor the situation and update a team coordinator until the protest is over. The team is not to stop any action or stop police response. Documents also show e-mail correspondences between team members and police about planned and unfolding campus activity.

The team of volunteers contacts police when something unlawful occurs, such as students blocking traffic or occupying a building. UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza said police officers do not typically engage in photo or video surveillance. Never have videos been taken for the purposes of identifying protesters or for surveillance purposes, she said, but arrests may have been filmed in the past.

“It’s a protective measure for both the police and the arrested … if you were arrested and then said that the police officer shoved you down or something, we could go back to the video and see what happened,” Spicuzza said.

How long the police department holds on to the videotapes depends on the Statute of Limitations. If a lawsuit occurred, the tapes would stay with the case reports, Spicuzza said.

Griselda Castro, UC Davis Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and team leader, has said that the team is making strides to become more transparent. The Student Activism Team roster is online, last updated on April 25. Team members are also to wear nametags at all future campus protests.

But that isn’t good enough, said Sarah Augusto, graduate student in sociology.

“If they wanted to be transparent as they say they do, they’d put student activists on the team, they’d open a dialogue with students and they would have said their intentions in the very beginning,” she said in an April interview.

UC Santa Cruz announces the Demonstration Advisory Group

On April 4, UC Santa Cruz Executive Vice Chancellor Alison Galloway publicly announced the formation of a team to reexamine the administration’s approaches to campus protests.

The new Demonstration Advisory Group is made up of students, faculty, staff and administrators. DAG will look at current policies, discuss potential changes and solicit opinions from the wider campus community.

“DAG aims at producing a better outcome for everyone involved and to improve the life of our campus,” Galloway said in her announcement.

But some sort of demonstration response program has been in the planning stages for years, according to Academic Senate documents.

Chancellor George Blumenthal convened a Demonstration Planning Team in August of 2006, and on March 1, 2007, the team issued a comprehensive report recommending the university to undertake a variety of monitoring methods. These included forming a team similar to DAG, training observers to be present at protests, communicating with protesters as well as police and assigning individuals to photograph and videotape demonstrations.

This sort of surveillance occurred on May 18 and 19 of last year, when the UC Santa Cruz Police Department hired private investigator Scott H. Newby to document a campus protest. Tom Pazo, a senior who filed a public records request, received two documents this spring – an invoice and receipt that show that UC Santa Cruz contracted Newby for 24 hours at $100 per hour. Including time allotted for postproduction and Newby’s travel to and from San Jose, the university paid a total of $6,000.

UC Santa Cruz Spokesperson Jim Burns said that the university documents demonstrations in the event of unlawful activity. He said it was necessary to hire someone as opposed to assigning the job to someone within the university police department due to the expected magnitude of the event.

This is an issue of transparency, Pazo said. The hiring of Newby likely would have never been publicly known if it weren’t for his public records request.

“That’s serious business to hire a professional investigator to photograph students,” Pazo said. “Even revealing the fact that they did it doesn’t reveal the reason why they did it.”

Pazo said he has little faith in DAG to make positive change on campus, based on the lack of communication between students and administrators.

“Regularly, the administration attends demonstrations, but there’s never a dialogue,” he said. “They treat their role as overseers; the committee is another superfluous entity.”

Similar communication, surveillance at UC Berkeley

E-mails between UC Berkeley administrators obtained through a public records act request show correspondences similar to those between UC Davis Student Activism Team members.

Leading up to campus demonstrations in November of 2009, many officials exchanged plans of action and intelligence – gathered from Twitter, blogs and Facebook groups – over e-mail. A small group of officials were referred to as The Crisis Team.

But UC Berkeley Spokesperson Janet Gilmore said the campus does not have a team comparable to the UC Davis Student Activism Team. Instead, representatives from the Dean of Students Office and the campus police department work with student leaders in planning for events – this includes booking venues and offering advice.

But based on the documents and observations, UC Berkeley administrators are responding similarly to those at UC Davis, said Laura Zelko, a student at UC Berkeley. The universities share a rhetoric aimed at co-opting students into being okay with the surveillance methods.

“Their line is that, up to a certain point, they’re there to help us protest – to help us best be involved in our campus,” she said. “At a certain point, when protests aren’t going their way, then they’re concerned about our safety.”

Alex Yao, UC Berkeley Police spokesperson, said the main concern of police is safety of the protesters and the public. Yao said the police department openly invites students to work with them to ensure a demonstration can occur, so long as it doesn’t violate university policy, rules of conduct or state laws. And in an effort to make sure those rules and laws are followed, the campus police take videos and photographs at protests.

The resultant documents are then used to potentially identify people who broke the law or violated policy. Police will sometimes share information about people who have committed crimes in the past in preparation of an event, in case those same individuals are present again.

“If someone breaks the law or a policy then they should be held accountable for it. Individuals have the right to express their opinions but they do not have the right to do so in breaking the law or violating other peoples’ rights,” Yao said. “If there is someone not in violation of law or policies then they should not be concerned.”

But university policy – like Time, Place and Manner regulations – makes it difficult to even recognize First Amendment rights, Zelko said. Under these rules, a student can’t place a cardboard sign against a building, amplified sound can only be used at two specific campus locations from 12 to 1 p.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. and only recognized organizations can have a table on campus – as long as it’s no larger than three feet by six feet.

“It’s a very good move in assuring that free speech was not going to actually be free at the university; that it’d be based on a student group’s ability to legitimize themselves with a sponsorship and the right sized tables,” she said. “[Free speech] gets lost in the details of what you’re not allowed to do.”

UC Irvine and beyond

Similar monitoring and surveillance occurs at UC Irvine, according to John Brunning, a recent UC Irvine graduate. Brunning has filed three requests for public records – the first one was to find out why he was arrested at a particular protest, and it yielded 350 pages of documents. One thing that stood out was that police held briefings before protests, discussing the identities and photos of activists expected to be present.

This is consistent with UC Berkeley’s protocol, as stated by Yao. And although Brunning had seen police snapping photos at demonstrations in the past, he found the extent to which the photography is used shocking.

“They had a briefing about me and were showing photos of me,” he said. “I ended up being arrested at that protest a few hours later. It seemed like, to me, they were basically planning to arrest me.”

Documents also show correspondences between police and members of the Dean of Students Office. Rameen Talesh, UC Irvine dean of students and assistant vice chancellor of Student Affairs, did not respond to questions regarding the campus surveillance policies. However, he said his offices work hard to keep people safe and respond to concerns in a timely manner.

“We take very seriously the rights of all members of our community and the public to use our campus to its full educational potential,” Talesh said in an e-mail.

Some universities take a more hands-on approach. At UC Riverside, students are required to register a demonstration with the dean of students beforehand. At UCLA, Student Affairs representatives and the campus police maintain regular discussions with student groups about upcoming events.

But regardless of the way each university chooses to respond to protests, officials at every UC campus echoed the same sentiments – their actions are in the interest of student safety, protecting free speech and allowing university business to continue as normal.

Students continue to dig for information

Students across the UC system are in the process of filing public records act requests. Some students want teams disbanded, others demand transparency.

University officials maintain that regulations and precautions are necessary, in part for student safety. Laura Zelko, student at UC Berkeley, doesn’t find this argument justified.

“This is our prerogative as protesters to put ourselves in situations that we wouldn’t usually to make a point or get a demand,” she said. “That is what civil disobedience is for, and to do it safely is not possible.”

But realistically, Zelko doesn’t see this argument ending. Furthermore, she doesn’t see the monitoring, surveillance or police response changing.

“In their position as administrators trying to maintain control and legitimatize themselves against a group of people speaking out against them, it makes sense,” she said. “I would love to say that I think they shouldn’t, but I don’t think that’s even a possibility. There’s always going to be surveillance and infiltration … We can ask them not to, but I don’t think they’ll ever stop.”??

JANELLE BITKER can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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