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Reporters repeatedly grilled Mayor Mike Bloomberg this morning about recent reports of the New York Police Department’s surveillance of Muslim student groups at campuses throughout the Northeast.
Bloomberg shot back at them that the NYPD policies are there to protect freedoms such as the free press. Take that, reporters!
“You are not going to survive. You will not be able to be a journalist and write what you want to say if the people who want to take away your freedoms are allowed to succeed,” Bloomberg said after one reporter pressed him on the matter.
This latest controversy escalated with reports from the Associated Press that the police department has regularly monitored websites run by Muslim student groups at 16 colleges, including Columbia and New York University.
(Read this document — a good example of what this monitoring looked like in practice).
Yale University President Richard Levin came out today criticizing the surveillance practices, calling them “antithetical to the values” of Yale and the country — the subject of the first off-topic question thrown at Bloomberg at a press conference this morning in Brooklyn about job-creation.
“I don’t know why keeping the country safe is antithetical to the values of Yale. Yale’s freedoms to do research, to teach, to give people a place to say what they want to say is defended by law enforcement throughout this country,” Bloomberg said. “If going on websites and looking for information is not what Yale stands for, I don’t know. It’s the freedom of information. If people put things on websites, presumably — and make them available to everybody…it’s ridiculous it seems to me to argue that they’re not available to everybody.”
In line with the defense that the NYPD has offered in light of the recent reports, Bloomberg also reminded reporters that a dozen people have been convicted through this kind of monitoring.
A second reporter asked Bloomberg to respond to the allegation that authorities even sent an undercover agent on a whitewater rafting trip where the agent recorded students’ names and kept a record of how many times the students prayed.
The mayor tried to brush it off with a (bit of an odd) joke.
“The only whitewater rafting that I’ve done I did with my daughter. I don’t think she had a lot of information that I was interested in in terms of her political views. It was a long time ago — I’m not sure at that time she had political views. She certainly does now,” he said before the reporter asked him if he thinks that kind of undercover surveillance goes one step too far.
“No,” he said, pausing again. “We have to keep this country safe. This is a dangerous place. Make no mistake about it. It’s very cute to go and to blame everybody and say we should stay away from…[policies like] intelligence gathering. The job of our law enforcement is to make sure that they prevent things and you only do that by being proactive. You have to respect people’s right to privacy. You have to obey the law, and I think that police officers across this country…do that.”
When a reporter later asked Bloomberg if he was aware NYPD detectives were working out of the state, he responded again with a short joke about whitewater rafting with his daughter.
Finally, in the last question of the news conference, another reporter asked him to respond to complaints from the Muslim community that they are being surveilled more than others.
“I don’t know how anybody would know that,” Bloomberg said.
He ended with one more line about free press: “Remind yourself when you turn off the light tonight, you have your job because there are young men and women who have been giving their lives overseas for the last 200 plus years so that we would have freedom of the press. And we go after the terrorists. We are going to continue to do that and the same thing is true for the people that work on the streets of our cities.”
After the conference, Runnin’ Scared called Cyrus McGoldrick, civil rights manager for Council of American-Islamic Relations in New York, to hear his response to Bloomberg’s latest defense of the policy.
“We know very well that, despite the NYPD’s best effort to deny it, this was not about following leads — this was about religious, ethnic profiling,” he told us.
When Runnin’ Scared asked him about Bloomberg mentioning free press in his defense, McGoldrick said, “That’s laughable. I would expect better from him…The idea that to protect freedom of press we need to then give up freedom of…religion, it doesn’t follow. It’s not logical.”
Public safety is important, but law enforcement should not devote its limited resources to blanket monitoring of these students, he said. “We are looking at the use of fear to justify the devastation and destruction of our constitutional rights.”