ACLU of Northern California Seeks Information About Undercover Surveillance of University Organizations

April 27, 2005 12:00 am

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Fresno State University Students Go On Hunger Strike to Protest Infiltration of Animal Rights Lecture

FRESNO, CA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and a Fresno State University student group today filed requests with the local sheriff’s department and the FBI after university officials disclosed that several plainclothes police officers were present at a student-sponsored lecture last fall. The sheriff’s department is currently under investigation following disclosures that it infiltrated an anti-war group in 2003.

Last November, the student organization, Campus Peace and Civil Liberties, sponsored an on-campus lecture and discussion by Gary Yourofsky, a nationally renowned animal rights lecturer. Several months later, university administrators revealed that members of the law enforcement intelligence community attended the lecture in plainclothes. Since then, university president John Welty has confirmed that six undercover law enforcement agents attended the event.

“The university administration has not been honest with us and we want them to lift the veil of secrecy and tell us the truth. We have a right to know,” said Ruth Obel-Jorgensen, president of the student group. She is leading an on-campus hunger strike to protest the university’s actions.

The group also sent an open letter today to Welty urging the university to adopt a clear policy limiting the use of undercover surveillance by campus police officers; to ensure that all university officers and administrators are immediately informed of and trained on the new policy; and to protect the privacy rights of the campus community against intrusion by outside law enforcement agencies.

“The university’s public safety department claims that there are undercover police everywhere gathering intelligence, even in churches and schools,” said Mark Schlosberg, the ACLU of Northern California’s Police Practices Policy Director. “Such rampant surveillance is not allowed under the state’s constitution. The university should come clean and reform its law enforcement practices immediately.”

This incident is not the first time a local group has been the focus of government surveillance, Schlosberg noted. In September 2003, following a news report about the death of an undercover member of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department, a local anti-war group known as Peace Fresno discovered it had been infiltrated.

“Why is the Fresno Sheriff’s Department wasting valuable taxpayer dollars on people who are exercising their First Amendment rights?” asked Nick deGraff, former president of Peace Fresno. “Whether we are activists or students, the government does not have the right to spy on us.”

Following the news of the Peace Fresno infiltration, California’s attorney general distributed a handbook to police and sheriff’s departments clarifying that law enforcement cannot monitor First Amendment-protected activity in the absence of reasonable suspicion of a crime.

The student letter to Fresno State University President John Welty is online at http://aclunc.org/police/050427-president.pdf.

The FOIA request is online at http://aclunc.org/police/050427-foia.pdf.

A Public Records Act request is online at http://aclunc.org/police/050427-foia.pdf.

The ACLU’s Proposed Guidelines for the Fresno State Campus Police Department is online at http://aclunc.org/police/050427-guidelines.pdf.

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