Last fall, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute went to great lengths to suppress its students’ peaceful demonstrations — criticizing the institute’s administration — outside of a black-tie fundraiser. RPI administrators denied students’ request for permission to hold a peaceful demonstration (and not for the first time), built a fence to keep students far away from the fundraiser, then peppered students with a number of frivolous charges, all of which were ultimately dropped or resolved in the students’ favor.
Dean of Students Travis Apgar later distributed talking points lamenting critics “who hide behind anonymity” and describing the demonstration as consisting of “highly tense moments” where it was “unclear what [students] would do next.”
RPI administrators had a public partner in surveilling and identifying its often-anonymous student critics: the City of Troy Police Department. After RPI claimed it would be unable to muster the resources necessary to tolerate a peaceful demonstration, RPI secured 24 members of the Troy Police Department to attend to the demonstration.
One of those officers recorded this video, released to FIRE under New York’s Freedom of Information Law and posted online by students involved in the demonstration, documenting officers standing around while students peacefully held signs and kept the sidewalks clear for attendees of the black-tie fundraiser.
So much for “highly tense moments”:
Videotaping demonstrators may occasionally serve a limited law enforcement purpose, but it comes at the cost of intimidating protesters, who might think twice about participating in peaceful demonstrations if police are recording them. An officer pointing a camera at you sends the intimidating signal that what you are doing is a threat to security or the community, and that what you are saying necessitates scrutiny. It’s one thing to have a camera on-hand and ready to begin taping violence or other criminal activity. It’s another for uniformed law enforcement to, as here, continuously tape peaceful demonstrators doing nothing more than exercising their rights.
Yet whatever law enforcement purpose might have been served by making this tape (if any), the Troy Police Department went further. On October 26, nearly two weeks after the demonstration, the Troy Police Department shared the videotape with RPI’s Director of Judicial Affairs, a student conduct administrator, who used it to identify students present at the demonstration, subsequently charging them with various violations of the student handbook or summoning them to meetings with student conduct administrators.
The Troy Police Department should not have taken the footage in the first place. And it should not have allowed student conduct administrators at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — a private entity — to review the footage. There was no criminal activity; the City of Troy says that “a search of Troy Police Department records returned no results relative to” records of police reports or complaints, suggesting that nobody — not RPI, not the Troy Police Department — witnessed any criminal conduct. At best, RPI sought to enforce its own private rules, not the law. Yet even this is doubtful, as RPI ultimately found the students not responsible for the meritless charges the administration brought against them.
In sharing police footage of peaceful demonstrators, public law enforcement — hired by one of the largest employers in the county — assisted in a private entity’s attempts to identify and suppress its critics, all for exercising the very rights that RPI promises to respect.
The City of Troy initially refused public access to the same tape to which it granted RPI administrators access. When FIRE sought to view the tape, Troy refused, citing a New York law exempting records that, if disclosed, would “reveal criminal investigative techniques or procedures.” This finding that was overturned only when we filed an appeal, pointing out that the video wasn’t made for a law enforcement purpose.
FIRE asked the City of Troy to produce not only this video, but also “any records of communication or correspondence between the Troy Police and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.” The City of Troy told us that those “do not exist” and that “the City of Troy has no obligation to provide documents that do not exist.”
That wasn’t exactly true. The “Save the Union” website had independently posted an invoice from Troy Police Chief John Tedesco to RPI, showing that the Institute was billed $10,213.98. That raises the question: If no records existed, but this one was already public, are there other non-existent records that haven’t been shared?