On Monday, April 16, 2012 a panel was held at SIPA, moderated by Interim Dean Robert C. Lieberman, to discuss questions that have arisen from recent news about NYPD surveillance of student groups on New York City campuses, including Columbia University.
“It seemed like a good idea to convene a discussion here at SIPA, because the issues raised seemed to be at the core of policy,” said Lieberman as he introduced the panel, “the balance between counterterrorism efforts and civil liberties, in an extraordinarily diverse New York City.”
In a discussion that was more about starting the debate around these policy issues than about finding the answers, Lieberman posed a series of questions for the panelists: SIPA Professor Ousmane Kane, Columbia Law School Professor Daniel Richman and Haroon Moghul, journalist, author and Ph.D. Candidate at Columbia University in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies.
From left to right: Haroon Moghul, Professor Richman, Professor Kane and Dean Lieberman.
“There are at least two sets of interlocking questions,” said Lieberman. “One is about this balance that I alluded to before: the balance between the need for security and protection in a dangerous world and civil liberties, the protection of basic freedoms that are essential parts of a liberal society.
The second set of questions is about the impact of those efforts on the Muslim community in New York City and Columbia. Does this invoke legitimate fears of racial, religious and ethnic profiling? How legitimate are these approaches on the part of police in attempting to combat terrorism? The university can’t be what it should be without absolute freedom of speech. Should there be different standards at universities than out in the ‘real world’?”
The unique role of the university as a hub for bringing youth together to discuss and explore ideas was a major point of discussion. Professor Kane emphasized that a principle “concern is these measures were taken, Muslim Student Associations infiltrated, without universities’ knowledge.
“In universities where people are really open, I think these surveillance techniques are really problematic,” he said, adding that cooperation could go much further than secret surveillance.
“Instead of sending spies or people who would infiltrate Muslim Student Associations, it would be better for enforcement agencies to cooperate and work with these people.”
Moghul who has travelled to various Muslim Student Associations in universities across the United States agreed:
“For those of us who do put ourselves forward and try to be engaged and work with the NYPD and government, this puts us in a tight position from both ends.”
He added that since 9/11, two out of five terrorist plots against the United States have been stopped with help by the Muslim community.
“The problem is, when you have this kind of environment, people may shy away from speaking up and giving help… When making these decisions, we’re thinking short-term security, but we should also be thinking long-term security.
Human networks and human intelligence can do a lot more.”
This led Dean Lieberman to raise the question of whether this kind of activity from American law enforcement agencies does more harm than good.
“Another set of questions,” he continued, “is that we’re not talking about the FBI or national security apparatus. We’re talking about the local police force. Should local law enforcement agencies in large urban areas function as an arm of national security of the state?”
Professor Richman began by saying that SIPA is the right building to have this discussion.
“I’m here to tell you how little the law has to say on these issues. Don’t think that the law school is going to give you answers.”
He added that he does believe the NYPD has an important role, but the question is how much of a role. Richman gave the audience an optimistic picture with regards to the future:
“The idea that we’ve settled on a model that a) works, and b) is economically and morally viable is wrong,” he said.
“There’s no guarantee that when everyone internalizes the obvious pressures, things will be where we want them to be, but there are pressures that can help. And part of the university’s role is to remind people what their own interests are in the long term.”
Lieberman ended the discussion by reminding the group that the policy debate was in the gray area of these issues:
“From our point of view, all the interesting questions are in the nuances. It’s not: should the NYPD do it or not? It’s: where is the line?
It sounds like this is a very rich set of topics for further discussion.”
- Michelle Chahine