UNC Police spying threatens free speech

Last spring, North Carolina legislators directed the UNC System Board of Governors to create policies to “restore and protect” free speech on the system’s 17 campuses. While claiming to promote free speech, the legislative measure was tacitly aimed at dampening protests by students who oppose right-wing and white-supremacist speakers. Republican legislators in other states have taken similar actions.

A subcommittee of the Board of Governors recently proposed policies that would impose punishments, including suspension and expulsion, on students who “substantially disrupt” speaker events or other meetings. The full board will vote on these policies next month.

Unfortunately, the board will not be considering the most serious threat to free speech on UNC campuses. That threat does not come from well-meaning students who heckle racist provocateurs. It comes, rather, from authoritarian campus police departments that seem to operate without firm administrative oversight.

A case in point was recently exposed at UNC-Chapel Hill. There, campus police officials assigned a plainclothes officer to spy on students engaged in a peaceful vigil calling for removal of the Silent Sam statue. The officer didn’t merely watch the students from a distance. He infiltrated the group, lied about his political interests and identity, and cultivated students’ trust.

The spying operation came to light when students involved in the protest later spotted the same officer, in uniform, on campus. When they called him “Victor,” the false name he gave while claiming to be a fellow protester, they discovered that Durham auto mechanic Victor Hernandez was really campus cop Hector Borges.

Upon being found out, Borges defended his actions by saying that he was just following orders. Of course he was. Which tells us that the problem lies with his boss, Jeff McCracken, chief of UNC police, and his boss, Derek Kemp, associate vice chancellor for campus safety and risk management, and his supposed boss, UNC chancellor Carol Folt.

All have offered feeble justifications for the spying. In a public statement, Kemp and McCracken cited a “very real potential for a violent outbreak at any time” as necessitating the spying to “protect the safety of people on our campus.” The 466-word statement references campus safety nine times.

The same statement professes, with apparent blindness to irony, that the spying was motivated by “deep caring” about the free speech rights of students and other members of the university community. Such a statement issues from the same mindset that sees it as necessary to destroy a village to save it.

Carol Folt, for her part, largely abdicated responsibility. As she told a Daily Tar Heel reporter who asked about the spying, “I look to our officers – to our police force – to determine the best way to keep people safe.” It seems that no one without a gun is in charge of watching the watchers.

The rhetoric of safety has often been used to cloak authoritarian impulses. Agents of the ever-expanding surveillance state tell us that they love freedom and don’t intend to infringe our rights to speech and assembly. We must rest assured, they say, that if we are spied upon everywhere, it’s only to keep us safe.

In the end, the motives avowed by agents of the state, including campus police departments, don’t matter. What matters are actions and their effects. In the case of UNC police spying on students, damage has been done to freedom of speech and assembly. This is what McCracken, Kemp and Folt don’t seem to understand.

Police spying corrodes the trust and solidarity that people seek to build when assembling to petition government for redress of grievances. Police spying makes people reluctant to express dissident ideas. Police spying deters some people from participating in democratic protest entirely.

This damage to the ground-level dynamics of democracy is real. No professions of deep caring for freedom of speech or invocations of concern for safety can offset or justify it. And so we must always oppose state spying on peaceful, law-abiding protesters – regardless of whether we share their beliefs. Liberty and democracy depend on it.

If the UNC Board of Governors truly wants to protect free speech on the system’s campuses, it will not waste time devising penalties for students whose only weapons are their voices. The board will instead seek to counter the greater threat to freedom of speech posed by authoritarian overreach on the part of campus police and feckless deference on the part of administrators.

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at N.C. State University.

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