Inside Higher Education
Sept. 9, 2005
Was Big Brother Watching?
Ever since September 11, civil liberties groups have expressed fear that
law enforcement agencies would use the fight against terror groups as an
excuse to monitor the activities of non-violent campus groups that
oppose administration policies. And ever since 9/11, Bush administration
officials have said that the civil liberties groups have nothing to fear
and that law enforcement is focused on real terror threats.
Documents released by the Michigan branch of the American Civil
Liberties Union, however, suggest that some campus groups that have
never engaged in terrorist activities have been monitored as if they
were terror threats.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU obtained a Federal Bureau
of Investigation report on a 2002 meeting involving the FBI, the
Michigan State police and other law enforcement agencies to discuss
groups in Michigan "thought to be involved in terrorist activities."
Among the groups monitored was By Any Means Necessary, a University of
Michigan group (also active elsewhere) devoted to defending affirmative
action. The group has been active throughout the long legal debate over
whether the university's approach to affirmative action was
constitutional, and in the two years since the Supreme Court upheld
affirmative action, the group has continued to go strong. It is
currently fighting a referendum to ban affirmative action in the state
In the FBI document, a detective whose identity was redacted reported on
rallies organized by By Any Means Necessary. The report also noted that
past activities by the group "have been peaceful," and did not explain
why the group was included in a report about groups that could be
terrorist organizations. Another group in the report, the Direct Action
Group, has many student members opposed to U.S. foreign policy.
The ACLU, in releasing the information, condemned law enforcement groups
for monitoring the activities of legal campus groups.
"Labeling political advocacy as 'terrorist activity' is a threat to
legitimate dissent which has never been considered a crime in this
country," said Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU. She
added that "spying on people who simply disagree with our government's
policies is a tremendous waste of police resources."
By Any Means Necessary has never been accused of being a terrorist
group. Its name comes from Malcolm X, and while it has organized many
protests, it has never been charged with violence of any sort and its
Web site mentions very traditional, legal ways of achieving its goals
(through the courts and elections, for example).
The group released a statement denouncing law enforcement groups for
watching their activities. "The American people do not want their
government spying on its own citizens," the statement said. "The
outrageous offense to basic civil liberties in spying on BAMN is
highlighted by the fact that the FBI report itself admits that BAMN has
no history of violence. We have held hundreds of peaceful demonstrations
and organized intensive litigation aimed at the defense of affirmative
action and civil rights generally."
The Michigan State Police released a statement of its own, defending the
monitoring of the activists groups as necessary to assure that protests
that they were planning were conducted peacefully. The police statement
said that there was no "spying," but rather information was gathered
from public sources.
- Scott Jaschik