ACLU misses obvious First Amendment violation in Harvard incident


The real story is not necessarily that undercover police were photographing students demonstrating at Harvard University last March.

The real story is that undercover police arrested one of the students after she photographed him photographing the student demonstrators.

After all, police officers have as much right to photograph civilians as civilians have to photograph them, as long as both subjects are in public view.

Unfortunately, the ACLU is missing the real issue by concentrating on the fact that the Harvard University Police Department is maintaining “an undercover, plainclothes, political intelligence unit”.

As if the undercover cops were the KGB rather than most likely a group of 21 Jump Street cops who jumped at the chance to work out of uniform for a day.

Harvard Crimson staff writer Jamison A. Hill is also missing the real issue by waiting until the 11th paragraph – the second to the last in the article – before revealing that Harvard student Gina Nieves was arrested after photographing the officer and refusing to delete the photo.

The officer was obviously not too concerned about blowing his cover when he readily admitted he was a cop before arresting her, according to the article. He also arrested a second student who protested Nieves’ arrest.

Reinstein said that Nieves noticed a bystander in plainclothes taking photos of the protest and decided to go photograph him. When she did, the man informed her that he was an undercover police officer with HUPD and placed her under arrest for refusing to delete the photos. Kearney said that the officer would have to arrest him if he was going to arrest Nieves and so Kearney was also arrested, according to both Fam and Reinstein.

Neither the ACLU or Hill question how Nieves could have been arrested for disorderly conduct by simply taking a photo. If that is a crime, then the undercover cop should be charged as well. Not surprisingly, the charges against Nieves were quickly dropped.

Meanwhile, the ACLU found it “quite surprising and disturbing” to learn that Harvard Police sent undercover cops to monitor the demonstration. How naive of them.

The ACLU, of all organizations, should know that the First Amendment also applies to police when it comes to photographing subjects in public. Especially when those subjects are openly demonstrating.

And if that’s all the students were doing, then they shouldn’t even be bothered by the fact that police are photographing them. I can’t count the times I’ve been photographed by obvious undercover cops – not to mention militant Cuban exiles – during protests.

The story reminds me of a couple of past articles I’ve written:

Demonstrator assaults photographer after he photographs her: This is how I met my photojournalist friend, Danny Hammontree. I wasn’t even at this protest, but heard about it through South Florida’s photography underground.

Even though I am a liberal activist myself, I ended up gaining the distrust of several South Florida liberal activists by writing this article. The bottom line is, if you don’t want to be photographed, then don’t stand on a public sidewalk protesting.

Undercover University of Miami cops surprise student activists: I had been tipped off that students were about to conduct another student sit-in. I was sitting in the lobby of the Ashe Building with my camera in my backpack waiting for the students to arrive. Across from me, sat a man in his 20s wearing a UM cap and t-shirt, acting as if he was reading the newspaper. He kept looking at me. I kept looking at him. I knew he was a cop. And he knew I was a journalist.

At about 1 p.m., as the students were entering the building from the second floor, he stood up and locked the doors. That was the first time I heard the walkie talkie and saw the badge on his belt. I discretely pulled my camera out and remained seated. Within seconds, another undercover cop dressed as a student was ordering me to leave. I also noticed a third undercover cop, a female dressed in complete UM garb, with a badge.

Once outside, I was able to get a nice shot of two undercover cops throwing three students out of the building. You can see that photo on the top left hand corner of the article.

I was pretty impressed at how police were able to thwart the second sit-in. I later learned that they did so by monitoring students’ emails, which is not against the law considering they were logged on to the university Internet system.

Here are photos from the first sit-in, which took police completely by surprise. It was from this protest that police recognized me the second time around.

The point is, once you engage in activism, you need to be prepared to give up some privacy.

But obviously, some activists have yet to learn this.

“It’s a little unnerving to find Harvard undercover police spying and taking pictures of Harvard students on public property,” said Shareef Fam of the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights, one of the organizers of the Harvard demonstration.

The key words here are “public property”. We can’t fight for our rights to photograph cops on public property while stripping them of the same right.


Citizen Journalism