A Free Speech Chiller: UW Police Infiltrated, Spied on Student Group

Thursday, July 8, 2010

When I was in college, I took part in a variety of student groups.  We would meet regularly to discuss our goals, plans, and activities.  Generally speaking, these meetings were fairly free-wheeling – after all, brainstorming requires that people think outside the box.  Many of the most outrageous suggestions weren’t things we’d ever actually do – they were simply far-fetched ideas meant to spur our collective imagination. 

Often, our plans involved public events such as parades, marches, and barbecues. Even though such events inherently affect the public at large, I never would have suspected “official” interest in our meetings. I never would have guessed that the police would view us as criminal threats, simply on the basis of our public activities. And I would have been mortified had I learned that police sent an undercover officer to infiltrate, spy on, and collect information about any student group in which I participated. 

Had that happened, my contributions to the group would have been limited, if they didn't cease altogether. As much as I’d like to champion my resolve, I’d have been paranoid that anything I’d say would be taken out of context. I’d have felt suspicious of any new members. I’d have lost trust in our institutional pillars. More than anything, I’d have felt completely violated.

With those feelings in mind, I can begin to imagine how the members of the University of Washington Student Worker Coalition (SWC) are dealing with news that the UW Police Department authorized an officer to spy on, collect information about, and participate in SWC meetings, without any suspicion of criminal activity.

Previously, the SWC had learned that an undercover UWPD officer attended an open meeting this spring.  On April 8th, a woman named “Tani” who described herself as a UW alumna actively participated in an SWC meeting to plan for a May 3rd campus demonstration. The following week, several SWC members encountered the officer in police uniform and confronted her, whereupon she admitted - unapologetically so - to being the person posing as “Tani” who attended the SWC meeting.

Recently obtained documents show that the April 8th meeting was not the first time this officer spied on the SWC. The first instance (of which we’re aware) actually took place April 1 at Suzzallo Café.  The officer sat at a neighboring table and eavesdropped on a closed meeting, collecting information on the SWC’s plans and political associations, and even described a running joke that took place during the meeting. E-mails show that the officer’s superiors considered this a “great job,” and that the officer planned to participate undercover in a subsequent meeting – which wound up being the April 8th meeting. 

In the e-mail, the officer discusses the group’s internal decision-making process, including information about ally groups with whom the SWC may work. This is the kind of stuff police might want to know about people planning crimes. The method used – spying on people at a café before sending in an undercover officer – sounds like something out of a script involving Tony Soprano. 

But the UW Student Worker Coalition is emphatically not a criminal enterprise.  The SWC is a lawful and peaceful endeavor that plans demonstrations and hopes to draw attention to their cause. They aim to provide a voice for the voiceless – a voice potentially muffled by the chilling effects of police surveillance.   

One can only hope that police actions don’t discourage participation in the SWC, or any of the lawful ally groups discussed in the e-mail. By treating political activists like criminal suspects, surveillance without suspicion discourages active participation in our democracy. The ACLU of Washington is working with the SWC to uncover the extent of surveillance, and is urging the University to take the steps necessary to prevent suspicionless surveillance in the future.

The SWC members were punished for their civic courage.  They exercised their constitutional freedoms of speech, assembly, and the right to petition the government, and the UW Police Department spied on them as a result.   Such spying shows the need for a new statewide law to allow government surveillance only with suspicion of criminal activity.