Systematic and widespread monitoring of Muslims’ everyday life by undercover informants, brought to light by an Associated Press investigative series last year, has had a severe chilling effect on speech, religious activity and community life, according to a new report by several civil rights organizations. Muslims fear speaking out even about the New York Police Department surveillance itself, and even youths described the fear of being arrested as “very real,” deterring them from activity that ranges from community involvement and speaking in class, to posting expressive messages on Facebook. “[W]hen your speech is limited, you can’t really do much: you can’t write on the internet, you can’t talk on the phone because they’re tapped, you can’t speak in public,” said one 22-year-old Sunday School teacher.
In interviews with 57 students, business owners, community leaders and educators, many recount having been asked to spy on their peers. One student recalled having been called into the principal’s office at age 16 and asked by the NYPD about her online activity. Several individuals described being questioned as suspects, and then later offered bribes to serve as informants when police realized they were not suspicious – told in moments of financial weakness that the police could “give them their freedom” by paying them for spying or providing them with a place to live. “These incidents – not infrequent in certain communities – have led many to realize that others, possibly their own peers, may not be as able to resist the pressures of working as informants,” the report said. This has bred mistrust both within the Muslim community and of law enforcement officers, prompting individuals and even businesses to accuse one another of being informants.
One of the most widespread and alarming elements of this NYPD surveillance was the recruitment of young people to infiltrate college groups. AP reports revealed that informants even accompanied students on a whitewater rafting trip, leading to fear that informants could be anyone and infiltrate anywhere. The report explains the impact on college campuses:
For college students, typically aged between 17 and 22, the prospect of dealing with surveillance by a police department, infiltration of events and extracurricular activities by informants, and the potentially devastating academic, professional, and personal repercussions can be overwhelming. … We found that the NYPD’s surveillance of students chilled First Amendment activity in what is perhaps the single most important formative and expressive space for any American youth: the college campus. […]
[W]ith a general understanding that dealing with “politics” is controversial, Muslim students find themselves steering away from those majors, classes, or extracurricular activities. Two students, both active members of their MSAs, reported switching their majors from political science to more conventional majors after becoming concerned about law enforcement scrutiny of “political” young Muslim males. […]
The isolationism that comes with being a member of a “spied on” community means that Muslim students are getting a fundamentally different, and less rewarding college experience compared to their non-Muslim peers.
As the report explains, these impacts suggest both First Amendment (free speech and religious suppression) and Fourteenth Amendment (discriminatory practices) implications, in a program that that may have broken the law and yielded no leads or cases.