Opposition to Silent Sam, surveillance of protest groups, continues to grow

If you’ve been following our coverage of the controversy over “Silent Sam,” the only Confederate monument on a UNC Campus, you’ll want to mark your calendar for a few things this week.

On Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. there will be a rally at the South Building on the UNC campus at Chapel Hill to demand answers on the undercover police surveillance of those protesting the monument.

Responding to controversy over the use of an undercover officer who used an assumed name and life-story to ingratiate himself with protesters, UNC Police Chief Jeff McCracken released a statement saying the move was simply to protect students from a potential “violent outbreak.”

Various student, faculty and civil rights watchdog groups are skeptical of that justification — including the non-profit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

FIRE recently backed a controversial university speech policy that students, faculty and the American Civil Liberties Union worry could be misapplied and have have a chilling effect on free speech.

But in a statement, the group stood up for anti-Silent Sam protesters and decried the use of undercover police officers to monitor their activities:

It’s not unheard of for a university to use undercover officers. The University of Chicago did the same thing in 2013, with an on-duty detective marching in plain clothes in a protest calling for a trauma center to be re-opened on campus. (An on-campus trauma center is planned for 2018.) And the nature of undercover work means that we can’t know how often it really happens; at best, we know how often the officer is exposed.

The use of undercover officers to keep tabs on people engaged in First Amendment activities, however, creates a serious risk of chilling speech. We at FIRE believe undercover officers should not be used to infiltrate groups engaged in First Amendment activity as a general surveillance technique.

In 2006, the ACLU of Northern California wrote a guide of “best practices” for surveillance of First Amendment activity. The good advice contained therein is applicable here. The guide recommends that surveillance should only happen when there is a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct (beyond the “civil disobedience” of protesting); a relationship between the First Amendment activity and the conduct being investigated; and when there are no less-chilling alternatives (such as openly investigating crime as police are trained to do, or using security cameras in public locations).

The threat posed by undercover surveillance of protest groups goes beyond the chilling effect on the speech of those groups. It also contributes to the sense that police and student activists are adversaries. That mistrust complicates the ability of uniformed police officers to do their jobs and reduces the likelihood that students will come forward with information they otherwise would have shared.

Public safety is the ultimate goal of campus law enforcement. We hope UNC’s police, and all campus police, consider the effect of this kind of activity before deciding to spy on students exercising their First Amendment rights in the future.


Meanwhile, the on-campus momentum against the monument continues to grow with new statements from the Department of Communication and the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies.

The statement from the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies is particularly strong:

For years, we have taught this monument’s fraught history and called attention to the negative signal it sends to contemporary students, faculty, and other UNC workers, especially African Americans. In the wake of Charlottesville, and given the resurgence of a white nationalist movement which has adopted such Jim Crow era statues as proud icons, the meaning of Silent Sam is no longer in doubt. No explanatory plaque, or alternative monument in the vicinity, can adequately counteract or compensate for the divisive, racially charged message this statue loudly projects. In accordance with the university’s core values, the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies is committed to diversity and inclusion in all its functions. To leave Silent Sam where he stands, at perhaps the most prominent site on university grounds, can only be seen as inconsistent with that core mission. Most disturbingly, the statue invites violent groups, who could pose real danger to students and everyone else on campus. If the statue is of historical interest, let it be moved to a historical museum.

Students and faculty intend to speak on the opposition to Silent Sam and to UNC police surveillance of the movement at Wednesday’s UNC Board of Trustees meeting.

The meeting will be held at the Carolina Inn, 211 Pittsboro St. in Chapel Hill. It will begin at 8 a.m. with the public comment portion beginning at 9 a.m.


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