After learning that in 2006 the New York City Police Department was spying on Muslim university students throughout the Northeast, including at Yale University, where I was a law student at the time, I immediately began—somewhat frantically—combing through my memory, trying to remember anything I may have said that could have been taken out of context and misconstrued. Whom did I speak to during that time period? What did we discuss? Could any of our actions or statements be listed in an NYPD file somewhere? The more I reminisced, the more incredulous I became that the NYPD actually spent time and money to spy on Yale Muslim Students Association members. The NYPD likely has a file on me, detailing my attendance at Yale MSA barbecues and ladies’ tea parties. No wonder the surveillance program is rumored to have lasted for about six months.
In fall 2006, I was beginning my first year of law school at Yale. Soon after I got to New Haven, Conn., the Yale MSA hosted a welcome barbecue for new students to meet the MSA. Like any college mixer, discussions centered on our backgrounds, class schedules, and academic interests. I recall telling my new friends that I was a lifelong New Yorker, attended Stony Brook University (another school that was being spied on), and was particularly interested in studying human-rights law. I might have mentioned my diehard obsession with the New York Yankees. As I look back, I try to think which of those friends might have been a secret NYPD informant and what, if anything, they reported. The general affinity that Muslim Yalies have for grilled meat? That my love for the Yankees amounts to fanaticism? (This point has me genuinely concerned. What if the spy was a Mets fan out for revenge? Or even worse, a Red Sox fan?) The lunacy of the thought makes me dig further into my memory. What else could the NYPD have been concerned about?
Ah, yes. When I was there, the Yale MSA did host a number of “Mango Madness” nights where the Muslim students gorged themselves on an unseemly number of mangoes and mango smoothies. Even I found this tradition to be somewhat unsettling, but surely mango consumption by Yalies is not an issue affecting New York City’s security. As I recall, the topics of discussion at such events ranged from the grueling chemistry exams for which the undergrads were studying to a doctoral student’s dissertation about feminist themes in postcolonial literature. To be sure, the Yale MSA hosted a number of religious events, such as weekly Friday prayers and dinners during Ramadan at which students broke their fasts together. To my recollection, people at these dinners discussed—between giant bites of falafel—how hungry they had been during the day, commiserated about how the days were growing longer as the month progressed, and shared tips on how to survive Yale’s demanding academic programs without the aid of caffeine. I often invited non-Muslim graduate students to accompany me to these dinners, so their statements may have been recorded as well. The futility of spying on such discussions—the waste of taxpayer money involved in amassing useless data about Yale students—is but one troubling fact about the NYPD spying program.
I also have fears regarding how my casual statements to friends could have been taken out of context and misinterpreted by the NYPD or others reading my NYPD file. Though the conversations I recall having with my friends were lighthearted, without the gift of an eidetic memory, I can’t be certain that my statements as a student won’t be held against me.
Such fears validate the concern that this surveillance program will have a chilling effect on the Yale MSA and MSAs throughout the U.S. MSAs are important additions to campus communities and contribute to essential interfaith dialogue, engaging with students of all faiths. And although the Yale and Stony Brook MSAs provided me with invaluable mentorship, support, and friendships during my academic years, I will warn my younger cousins about the risks involved in being active in MSAs when they start college. They, like me, are lifelong New Yorkers who have no criminal activity to hide, but the NYPD spying program has resulted in a breakdown of trust. I plan on requesting my NYPD file through New York’s Freedom of Information Law and will share this information with my cousins so they are fully aware of the consequences of associating oneself with a Muslim group on a college campus—even if the school is outside the NYPD’s jurisdiction. If they choose to be leaders in their college MSAs, at least they’ll do so with the knowledge that someone is listening and recording what they say.
Though the NYPD probably ended up with reams of useless information about mundane discussions or basic information about Islam that could be garnered from Wikipedia (for instance, the NYPD learned from a rafting trip with the City University of New York MSA that Muslims pray five times per day), they likely were hoping to collect evidence that MSA members cannot be trusted because they are opposed to the U.S., its leaders, and its policies. The NYPD’s spying program is troubling because it gravely threatens freedom of thought, which is the hallmark of an intellectual community. Moreover, intellectual freedom based on religious persuasion is at the very heart of our liberties as Americans: this country was founded by people pursuing their own religious freedom, and attempting to suppress Muslims’ free expression can paradoxically hurt the U.S. by potentially diluting the rigor with which university students express reasoned disapproval of our nation’s current policies. By spying on Muslims because they may say things perceived by NYPD officers to be anti-American, the NYPD program discourages critical discussions and threatens to turn universities into echo chambers where only those who parrot the status quo are safe from the thought police.
One of America’s greatest assets is its collection of world-renowned universities. Universities have long been feared by dictatorial regimes, because they are hotbeds of intellectualism where the status quo is challenged and future leaders demand the very best from their country and its current politicians. The Yale community is home to diverse students and scholars with a wide range of viewpoints regarding national and foreign policies that affect all Americans. Such policies need to be subject to the rigorous debates occurring at universities everywhere so that we as a society can make informed choices about the ideals that will further our country’s influence on the international stage.
As someone who was born in New York City and raised in its suburbs, I feel deeply betrayed by the NYPD’s Orwellian spying program. It was my city that was attacked on Sept. 11, and I absolutely share the NYPD’s goal of protecting this city. I couldn’t disagree more with the tactics it used to achieve that end, though. The most obvious problem with this program is that a person’s merely identifying with Islam (though many of us invited non-Muslim friends to MSA events; it wouldn’t be fair to hog all the mangoes ourselves, would it?) does not provide probable cause for law enforcement to search her—probable cause requires a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime. But the spying program also threatens to stifle freedom of thought at universities, focusing particularly on potential dissent from Muslims.
Yale University’s motto translates to “Light and truth.” Students and campus community members engaging in dialogue about national policies should never have to fear that the NYPD’s thought police are recording what they say and could hold their statements against them. To impose such fear on students obstructs freedom of thought. Under the watchful eye of the NYPD—acting out of its jurisdiction, mind you—a university such as Yale could never continue upholding light and truth.