ACLU Calls on University of Washington to Curb Campus Surveillance

News Release: 
Thursday, July 8, 2010

The ACLU of Washington today called upon the University of Washington administration to take action to ensure that campus police prevent further surveillance of the lawful political activities of its students, faculty and staff.  The ACLU said that incidents on campus point to the need for state legislation allowing political surveillance only when there is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Public records obtained by the ACLU show that the University of Washington Police Department (UWPD) authorized an undercover officer to attend, participate in, and collect information about meetings of the University of Washington Student Worker Coalition (SWC).  These documents follow on the heels of a previously disclosed surveillance episode and show that it was neither an isolated incident, nor was it the first time police improperly monitored the student group.  

In addition, the documents show that UWPD violated internal policy regarding intelligence collection, which state that the “sole purpose” of information collection is “eliminating criminal activity,” and that “[i]nformation collected is limited to suspected criminal conduct and activities that are crimes.” By collecting non-criminal information about the SWC – including their political ideas, allies and statements – the UWPD went beyond the limitations set forth in their Operations Manual.

“We urge the University to issue a clear statement that government surveillance based on political ideology is not permissible,” said Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington in a letter to Vice Provost Eric Godfrey. “Further, we call on the University of Washington to ensure its policy limiting intelligence collection is enforced and to provide training to all officers clearly stating that officers shall not collect information about political and religious views and activities without a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.”

According to documents obtained via an ACLU of Washington records request, a UWPD officer attempted to infiltrate a Student Worker Coalition meeting at Suzzallo Café on April 1, 2010.  Noting that this was “not an open meeting,” the officer sat at a neighboring table and took notes.  In an April 2, 2010 e-mail to a UWPD Lieutenant, the officer discussed the content of the SWC meeting, participants’ political beliefs, and their plans to work with various worker groups throughout the UW community.  The officer also described her intent to “locate the location of the next meeting to see if a plain clothes officer could fit in.” Her superior and a deputy chief responded that the officer “did a great job” monitoring the SWC. 

This e-mail sheds new light on a previously disclosed incident involving the same officer.  On April 8, a woman named “Tani” who described herself as a UW alumna actively participated in an SWC meeting to plan for a May 3d campus demonstration. The following week, several SWC members encountered the officer in police uniform and confronted her, whereupon she admitted to being the person posing as “Tani” who attended the SWC meeting.

Salmun Kazerounian and Sarah White, recent University of Washington Law School graduates and members of the Student Worker Coalition, spoke at the press conference. “Spying on workers and student activists is an embarrassing waste of public resources that disrupts legitimate and important organizing activities,” said Kazerounian. Members of the UW chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, Kazerounian and White helped form the SWC to address both worker and student concerns around budget cuts.

“The surveillance incidents on campus are further evidence of the need for state legislation to allow political surveillance only with reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct,” Taylor added. Legislation to accomplish this was introduced in the 2010 legislature, and the ACLU again will press for its passage in 2011.

In the recent settlement of a case brought by the ACLU of Washington and attorney Lawrence Hildes, three law enforcement agencies agreed to pay $418,000 including attorney’s fees for the wrongful arrest and covert surveillance of Evergreen State graduate Philip Chinn. Despite obeying traffic laws and passing all sobriety tests, Chinn was arrested for driving under the influence on the way from Olympia to an anti-war demonstration in Aberdeen. Documents obtained via public disclosure requests revealed that the arrest came as part of a multi-agency “action plan” to suppress political protest.