Groups suspect U. Texas police of covert activity; claims of spying unfounded, officials say

By Celina Moreno
The Daily Texan
October 17, 2001

Suspicions that undercover University of Texas-Austin police officers are monitoring student organizations have prompted members of the Undergraduate Students Association to take a closer look at the University's free speech policy.

Two separate incidents have led to these fears, which have not been confirmed by the UT Police Department or administration.

"No UTPD policy exists for student monitoring," said Rhonda Strange, director of communications. She added that assistant UT police chief Terry McMahan has said all investigations must fall under the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. UTPD officials were not available for comment Friday or Tuesday.

Student concerns of police monitoring are derived from several documents disclosed through Freedom of Information requests -- including a police report of a student organization meeting.

In the February police report 011464.I, UTPD Lt. Julie Gillespie reported her attendance at a meeting of pro-choice activists, who planned a protest against the student group Justice For All's 18-foot tall exhibit of aborted fetuses. Whether Gillespie went undercover was not explicit in the document, which she filed as an "incident" report.

"There are no plans to stop the exhibit or to do anything illegal at the planned protest on Thursday," the police report stated. "One important note -- a gentleman put the e-mail address of the woman [Mia Carter] that was hit in the face on Tuesday, on the board. He stated that anyone who videotaped the incident or that was an eyewitness to please contact her, because she was planning a lawsuit against the University."

An FOI request was filed in spring 2000 after student activists, who were planning a protest of a Henry Kissinger lecture, felt UTPD officers knew too much about the event after the department suggested that the lecture be canceled to maintain the security of UT students and Kissinger.

But UT System lawyers appealed the request to Attorney General John Cornyn, citing that "the disclosure of these documents would interfere with the ability of the police department to obtain future intelligence necessary for the detection, investigation and possible persecution of criminal offenses in the future."

The appeal also cited that "the Texas Public Information Act specifically excepts from disclosure information which would reveal law enforcement techniques to the public, unduly interfere with law enforcement and make it more difficult for an agency to do its job."

Cornyn's office approved the appeal which supported the University's right to withhold the documents.

The same FOI request cited that the Texas Public Information Handbook "incorporates 'informer's privilege,' which protects the informer's identity and any portion of the documents that might tend to reveal an informer's identity," adding that "a careful reading of the enclosed documents might identify persons that furnished information to the police."

UGSA has since rounded up 16 other on-campus political organizations in support of a policy proposal that condemns undercover police monitoring of student organizations.

The proposal, which will be submitted to UT President Larry Faulkner in November, also points at other restrictions in UT free speech policies including content-based censorship and time, place and manner restrictions.

While UTPD has a duty to investigate crimes, it risks compromising its credibility with campus organizations by having no official policy on police monitoring, the proposal said.

"Instead of creating an atmosphere of cooperation, it causes friction and hurts both the police and students," the proposal stated.

Because UTPD can arbitrarily monitor student groups without a department policy in place, such monitoring must take place under strict scrutiny, said Aaron Garza, UGSA president.

"They get to spy on you with no policies regulating them," said Garza, a political communications junior. "What will stop the officers from investigating specific activists within those organizations?"

Will Harrell, the executive director of the Texas American Civil Liberties Union, said that at the meeting, police can infiltrate and monitor student organizations only if they have evidence to believe that there will be a crime committed or plans exist to commit a crime.

"But simply to monitor just to have a sense of the activities is blatantly illegal and should not be accepted," Harrell said. "It has a chilling effect on the students' rights of freedom of association, because if students know that they are being monitored, they might be scared to speak."

Matt Hammond, Student Government president, said he opposes police monitoring of student organization meetings except in extreme situations that threaten the security of students.

"I don't like the idea of police officers posing as students. The only exception, and still I don't like the idea of UTPD officers posing as students, would be if an organization is going to plan something harmful to students," Hammond said.

Several students have emphasized that any UTPD policy drafted must be specific and available to the public in the Student Organizations Handbook.

Ultimately, the members of the 17 organizations hope to put police monitoring on the agenda for the Free Speech Task Force, which will be chaired by Doug Laycock, a constitutional law professor.

The task force, which is being created by Faulkner, will begin meeting in January when Laycock said he'd be available.