Fresno State University Adopts Surveillance Policy
In November 2004, several plainclothes officers from the Fresno County Sheriff's department covertly attended a lecture presented by a well-known animal rights activist at Fresno State University.
Members of the Sheriff's department had reportedly attended several peaceful activist gatherings in the past, but this incident sparked several notable protests among Fresno State students, including a hunger strike, which garnered national attention from groups like the ACLU, which has asserted that the Sheriff's plainclothes involvement constitutes spying and is a violation of the First Amendment rights of the students and speakers who choose to attend these gatherings.
The Academic Council, a group of professors at Fresno State, as well as University President John Welty, released a security plan yesterday which outlines appropriate methods for surveillance and maintaining safety on campus. One of the most hotly contested items of the new security plan was an item regarding "temporary cameras in classrooms and offices." Voting among the 68 members of the Academic Council was divided - some members thought that the cameras could be used as effective temporary security tools and could possibly avert future security risks or attacks. However, many members of the Academic Council thought that the privacy rights of students superseded any security risks students might face, claiming that cameras in classrooms may threaten academic freedom. In the end, the Academic Council approved a security policy which allows for cameras in laboratories where expensive equipment might be compromised, and requires that "less intrusive means" be used to investigate potential crimes, unless granted written approval from top University administration.
This controversy brings up many interesting issues about school video surveillance, which is still a relatively new frontier in the United States. Since most schools are publicly owned, surveillance is strictly monitored and regulated to protect the privacy of students, staff and faculty. The responses of the Academic Council signify that attitudes toward public surveillance are still relatively hostile, and that the privacy rights of students and employees still take precedence over security risks (whether real or perceived) in public areas like schools. School video surveillance isn't commonplace, and won't be anytime soon. However, the clashes between protection and privacy where surveillance is concerned are real, and they aren't going anywhere. Fresno State's example represents a compromise between security and privacy, and may represent what is to come.