As part of Brooklyn College’s We Stand Against Hate (WSAH) initiative, professors Moustafa Bayoumi (English), Benjamin Carp (History), Sandra Kingan (Mathematics), and Alex Vitale (Sociology) conducted a workshop state-sponsored surveillance on college campuses and its effect on constitutional rights. WSAH aims to raise the level of discourse around today’s controversial and difficult political issues, and cultivate inclusiveness and understanding on campus.

Surveillance and the First Amendment, a workshop held on February 22 in the Brooklyn College Student Center and streamed live on Facebook, took a four-discipline approach to the very real issue of surveillance on campus, specifically the presence of an undercover NYPD officer who infiltrated Muslim and minority student groups at Brooklyn College and the stultifying affect it had on freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and academic freedom.

“Covert surveillance by the NYPD of Muslim and Muslim-Americans on campus was a confirmation not a revelation,” said Professor Bayoumi, the author of the award-winning book How Does It Feel To Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America (Penguin). “It is something that we have to grapple with very seriously and consider very deliberately, what kinds of things that unwarranted surveillance brings.”

“There is an extensive use of technologies, databases, algorithms, to try to identify both individuals and places that may be associated with future crime committing,” said Professor Vitale about the newer methods of what he called predictive policing. “The primary protections against [unreasonable search and seizure] are in the Fourth Amendment,” said Vitale. “Predictive policing undermines Fourth amendment protections by claiming that social networking and undefined algorithms can constitute reasonable suspicion and probable cause, so a person could be charged with criminal conspiracy in the absence of an overt act or physical evidence.”

Professor Kingan, who specializes in network theory, provided an overview of the nuts and bolts behind the mathematical algorithms used in surveillance. She said that one of the actions recommended to mathematicians and computer scientists was an ethics course.

“There is a small but growing number of mathematicians speaking out,” Kingan said. “Mathematics has its limits. When you propose a strategy based on mathematics, it carries weight. You have to be careful what exactly you are proposing, and make the limitations, very, very clear.”

Professor Carp, who is the Daniel M. Lyons Professor of American History at Brooklyn College, suggested that individuals examine the roots of the U.S. Constitution—which go as far back as the mid-17th century—for answers. “Not everybody knows the origin story of our first amendment and the enlightenment principles that first enshrined the words in the Constitution,” said Carp. “The legal, Constitutional, ideological underpinnings of religious liberty have profound power in this country and they remain a basis for radical appeals to equality, freedom of conscience and expression, and to freedom from suppression and surveillance.”

“Surveillance and the First Amendment” is part of We Stand Against Hate (WSAH), an initiative spearheaded by President Michelle J. Anderson in response to challenges the college has faced with conflict on campus. Throughout the spring semester, the initiative will continue to feature lectures, panel discussions, workshops, concerts, programs, and events that will elevate the discourse around controversial and difficult political issues, and foster inclusiveness, compassion, and understanding on campus.