Condemning the NYPD over Academic Freedom?

As Mark Bauerlein observed in his seminal essay on the topic, groupthink has the effect of producing more extreme versions of the common assumption. It stands to reason, therefore, that campuses with unusually one-sided faculties will feature more frequent episodes of extremist assertions. Such certainly seems to be the case at my own institution, Brooklyn College, which too often seems eager to position itself in a kind of canary-in-the-coal mine role in higher education.

The common assumptions in this case are claims of a pervasiveness of Islamophobia in contemporary America and a belief that the U.S. government has inappropriately restricted the civil liberties of American Muslims. The extreme action came in response to an NYPD program monitoring homegrown Islamic extremism.

The AP broke the story in August, reporting that the NYPD had been “targeting ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government,” though not by state or city governments. The NYPD program, moreover, featured “unprecedented help from the CIA, a partnership that has blurred the line between foreign and domestic spying,” an unsurprising development given that one key post-9/11 lesson is promoting greater cooperation between domestic and foreign intelligence agencies.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg—hardly a right-wing radical—termed the AP story “underwhelming.” Goldberg added that it’s hard to insinuate, as the AP story did, that the NYPD program represented an assault on civil liberties, given that “New York City is a much-more liberal place than the country as a whole, and is more attuned to civil liberties issues than either the Bush or the Obama administrations (history will remember Obama in this context for maintaining many of Bush's counterterror programs he once criticized). I have a certain amount of faith that the NYPD isn't overstepping its bounds in this matter, because of the city government's baseline level of civil liberties sensitivity, and because I'm somewhat familiar with the way these programs are vetted in New York, and the vetting is fairly rigorous.”

Perhaps the NYPD program does go too far. But, at the very least, the matter is a close call, and reasonable arguments can be made on both sides.

The Brooklyn College Faculty Council, however, concluded otherwise. The Council’s resolution took no notice of the AP story. Instead, a posting (not a news article) in the Huffington Post prompted the Council to act. The posting suggested that NYPD intelligence efforts had included an undercover agent in some CUNY college Muslim student organizations. The posting didn’t claim that the NYPD was monitoring these students because they were students. Indeed, the work of Len Levitt, the posting’s author and a figure highly critical of the police, strongly implied that the NYPD actions had some legitimacy, since police documents revealed that one of the monitored students “has expressed a desire to be a suicide bomber in Palestine.”

Nonetheless, the Faculty Council sprung into action. Citing only the Huffington Post item, the body (unanimously!) approved a resolution demanding that the Brooklyn administration publicly condemn the NYPD and demand that the NYPD turn over the fruits of its investigation to the students who had been monitored—a list that would include, of course, the student who “has expressed a desire to be a suicide bomber in Palestine.”

Two items stand out from this bizarre resolution. First, a college faculty council (unanimously!) demanded that the college administration publicly rebuke the city’s police department and urge that same police department to turn over its investigative files to subjects of its investigation—based solely, at least according to the resolution, on a posting (not a news article) in the Huffington Post. That’s not to say the Huffington Post isn’t necessarily a reliable source. But wouldn’t it have seemed prudent for a council of truth-seeking academics to have cited information from a wider array of publications rather than simply a single item? Or is it appropriate for academics to act once they have found a source that confirms their preexisting beliefs?

Second, the Council claimed that the NYPD actions threatened “the intellectual freedom necessary for a vibrant academic community.” Again, these actions involved monitoring at least one person who “has expressed a desire to be a suicide bomber in Palestine.” How, possibly, could such a sentiment fall under the heading of “a vibrant academic community”? The Council’s resolution doesn’t say. Nor does the Council say what, if any, type of police investigation on campus would be permissible to overcome the alleged threat to “the intellectual freedom necessary for a vibrant academic community.” Indeed, the only action that the Council envisions regarding the issue is for the NYPD to turn over its investigative files to this alleged prospective suicide-murderer.

Such a demand would be comical if it didn’t represent the—sadly, unanimous—demand of a college faculty’s governance board.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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3 thoughts on “Condemning the NYPD over Academic Freedom?

  1. You say that the faculty vote was unanimous. I find that very odd. I am also an alum of Brooklyn College and while the faculty was more liberal than I cared for, the entire faculty were not way out lefties. So I wonder, what was the actual faculty vote on this matter? In other words, how many people actually voted for it? The deviousness of the liberal left should never be underestimated and it would not surprise me at all if the voting was somehow manipulated to occur at a time when the majority of the faculty were not present, or at least when known opponents were not present.

  2. I used to teach at Brooklyn College.
    A few thoughts.
    1) The faculty is very mixed on issues of the politics of Islam in the US. I’m just wondering, therefore, that if they all came together, there might be more to the story than what I’m reading here.
    2) That Mr. Goldberg has “a certain amount of faith that the NYPD isn’t overstepping its bounds in this matter, because of the city government’s baseline level of civil liberties sensitivity” is just odd. The NYPD has a long record of gratuitous violations of civil liberties.
    3) People are allowed to say outrageous things. It’s called freedom of speech. I know people who have said that one or another American political figure should be shot, including the president. I don’t think it’s appropriate to open up an FBI investigation of them over it.
    4) The substance of the NYPD program is missing here. It is actually quite alarming. Too bad you didn’t have room to discuss it. It includes the involvement of the CIA in domestic affairs (illegal), sending snoops into houses of worship, and more. Here’s a useful link:
    I’m sure you can find more with a bit of Googling.

  3. Let me guess.
    If the Brooklyn College Faculty Council had learned from a Huff-Po posting that a NYPD undercover investigation had uncovered the fact that a Brooklyn College student who was a member of a white supremacist group had stated that he would gladly carry a loaded weapon to class, they wouldn’t rebuke the NYPD and defend the student, would they?
    If the Brooklyn College Faculty Council had learned from a news report that a Brooklyn College student who alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by another student and a NYPD investigation concluded that the woman was lying (precisely what has happened in another State), they would not demand that the results of that investigation be turned over to the Brooklyn College Committee that adjudicates allegations of sexual assault on its campus, would they?
    So much for a “a vibrant academic community.”

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