Fifty students joined University President Lee Bollinger to discuss the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslim student organizations on Monday night, with many Muslims saying they feel uneasy knowing they have been watched and could be watched in the future.
Student leaders from across the University attended the fireside chat to listen to Bollinger discuss Columbia’s response and question him about how he would follow up with the police.
The Associated Press reported last week that the NYPD monitored the Muslim Students Association’s website as recently as 2007.
“This is something that is deeply disturbing,” Bollinger said. “We live in a world where we think the role of the state is not to watch us, to follow us, to monitor us, unless there is some predicate for investigating criminal activity.”
Bollinger echoed his earlier University-wide statement, which said that “such an intrusion into the normal, daily activities of our students raises deeply troubling questions that should concern us all.”
Likewise, Provost John Coatsworth called the monitoring of Muslim students an “outrage.”
“I think Columbia’s position on police surveillance is exactly the right one,” he said. “I am very grateful to the Muslim Students Association for making such a fuss about this.”
Irem Bilgic, SEAS ’12 and president of the MSA, said she was thankful that Bollinger hosted the chat to engage with students directly, but emphasized that the issue was not exclusive to members of the MSA, but one involving the entire student body.
“We were shocked and disappointed by the surveillance,” she said. “Since coming to Columbia, I have found comfort in MSA and the greater Columbia community.”
Bilgic said that it was alarming that students were being monitored without any evidence that they were engaged in criminal activities. “I think all Columbia students, whether American or not, religious or non-religious, activists or non-activists, deserve the University’s protection. We really want to feel safe on campus,” she said.
Ramin Montazeri, a second-year law student and president of Middle Eastern Law Students Association, said that the actions of the NYPD “violated our constitutional rights,” and should not be tolerated.
“There is nothing more valuable in society than peace and security,” he said. “The law enforcement agents of all cities, and New York City especially, do a great service to their citizens by keeping them safe. However, in a free country like America, the constitution puts limits and secures the privacy of individual citizens. Isn’t that what makes America different?”
And while much of the discussion has been at the undergraduate level, Adel Elsohly, GSAS ’12 and an active member of the MSA for the last four years, said that surveillance issues have forced him to pursue his study of chemistry with caution.
“I’ve felt the need, at times, to ask co-workers to do literature searches for me because I figured that me doing that search could turn up suspicious—looking up something explosive, for example,” he said.
Elsohly also spoke about the internal strife that the surveillance news created among Muslims on campus.
“It’s very troubling for me to see a community that was relatively well-knit, to suddenly see them looking over their shoulder saying, ‘Can I trust this person? Can I trust that person?’” he said. “And I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve seen that says, ‘How can we call ourselves a University when we can’t even express ourselves to each other?’”
Black Students Organization President Ganiatu Afolabi, CC ’12, said she was pleased Bollinger hosted the chat and involved students from many different schools, but was still concerned about how some students feel on campus.
“There’s a large majority of students on this campus who feel very unsafe, and I think that conversation needs to be opened up as well,” she said. “We don’t always feel like we can speak openly on campus.”
Bollinger said that he strives to ensure that all students feel safe on campus, reminding students that he is only an email away.
Coatsworth closed the chat, saying that the reality of freedom of speech is that it has not always been a right afforded to all.
“The history of free speech is not written in the Constitution, and it took two centuries of struggle to get to where we are now,” he said. “The people who protect us most are people like you.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, Ganiatu Afolabi and Irem Bilgic were referred to once each as "he," rather than "she." Spectator regrets the error.