Law allows UT to keep security camera info
Cameras included on FOIA exemptions in recent legislation
By Lomi Kriel
Monday, June 16, 2003
Texas' homeland security bill, which would keep secret the locations of security cameras around campus, awaits only the signature of the governor before becoming law.
A subsection of House Bill 9 would effectively exempt operating procedures and locations of the cameras from requests under the Freedom of Information Act. The bill was sent to Gov. Rick Perry June 3.
Last year, The Daily Texan filed an Open Records request for camera locations and expenses at the University. After Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled in favor of the Texan, the University filed a lawsuit to overturn his decision. Travis County District Judge Paul Davis dismissed that suit in February.
The University decided to appeal the case in March.
Under an amendment to the bill, information regarding security cameras in private offices remains public information. The bill closes information about cameras in public areas.
"If you're trying to find a camera by the Texas Union, you're not likely to get that," said Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, the author of the camera amendment. "But you can get the location of a camera in a private office, like a financial aid counselor's office."
Shapleigh pushed the new clause after fears that the bill would close all information regarding security cameras.
"History has taught us to be vigilant about the loss of liberty to those who want to 'monitor us in order to increase our security,'" Shapleigh said. "Republicans and Democrats alike had some concerns when I asked the simple question, 'Do we know if there is a camera in our office?'"
Shapleigh said that he had originally opposed closing this information.
"I wanted all camera locations disclosed, I saw no need for an exception to the Open Records Act," Shapleigh said. "But the security folks made a plausible case that those locations should be exempt."
Patricia Ohlendorf, vice president for institutional relations and legal affairs, said this legislation would close information similar to that requested by the Texan.
"We had understood that this was a matter important not only to the University, but also to state law enforcement agencies," Ohlendorf said.
Ohlendorf said it was not yet clear whether this legislation would affect the lawsuit.
Mike Viesca, the attorney general's press officer, said he could not comment on legislation currently before the governor.
Various UT officials attended hearings regarding the confidentiality of security camera information throughout the session, including Helen Bright, UT System attorney, and Erle Janssen, UT Director of Environmental Health and Safety.
But the University's representatives were only there to provide information, Ohlendorf said.
"You can't ask someone to vote or not to vote," she said.
Scott Henson, a member of the legislative committee at the American Civil Liberties Union, worried that under the bill's restrictions, not only would one not know where the cameras were located, but also how the tapes were used.
Shapleigh voiced similar concerns.
"We are living in an era when we must be very vigilant about the loss of privacy," Shapleigh said.
William G. Staples, a sociology professor at the University of Kansas and author of "Everyday Surveillance: Vigilance and Visibility in Postmodern Life," said if universities use tapes in their surveillance cameras, then students should have input into regulating that policy and procedure as a security measure.
Nationwide, concerns about surveillance cameras have been raised as more universities use them for campus security.
H. Scott Doner, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, estimated that almost half of all American colleges have at least a few security cameras.
"They are a great, effective crime prevention tool," Doner said.
Staples said it is crucial to provide a compelling case as to why security cameras are necessary in a specific location and to show evidence that it would increase security.
"There is an increased belief in our society that cameras solve problems," Staples said. "I am just not convinced that that is the case."
Staples also said if cameras are used for crime deterrence, then signs notifying camera surveillance in a specific area should be posted.
But disclosing camera locations around important research activities might aid potential terrorists, Shapleigh said.
Ohlendorf said in January that withholding camera locations is crucial to public safety.
But Staples voiced concerns about the effects of surveillance on an academic community.
Staples said college campuses are often a place for engaging in political debate and discourse, and surveillance could possibly deter individuals from such participation, who worry that the tapes could be used against them.
"Can I speak freely in public?" Staples asked. "Or do I know that I am going to be taped doing it?"