Tuesday, December 20, 2005
A senior at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth was interrogated last month by Department of Homeland Security officials because he tried to borrow from a campus library an unabridged version of The Little Red Book, which centers on Mao Tse-Tung’s views of Communism.
The 21-year-old student, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of history at the university who focuses on Islamic studies, that he had attempted to borrow the book earlier this semester through the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s interlibrary loan program.
The student was searching for primary texts to complete a paper for a class in Williams’s department on fascism and totalitarianism.
Shortly after the student filed his request — providing his name, address and phone number — two agents arrived at his parent’s house, where he lives. They asked him to prove why he wanted the book, which they indicated was on a “watch list,” and inquired about his travels to South America. The officials brought a copy of the book with them to his parent’s residence, but said he couldn’t have it.
Ultimately, the student chose to travel to an FBI office about an hour from the university to further defend himself. The student is currently finishing his paper, and it is unknown at this point if the Department of Homeland Security plans to take action against him. Several calls to the department on Monday went unreturned.
The student’s experience has set off an alarm among academics.
Williams, for one, says this circumstance illustrates that the federal government is overstepping its Constitutional bounds regarding academic freedom. After learning about this incident, Williams considered not offering a class on terrorism that he had planned on teaching next fall.
“I’m not some liberal firebrand,” Williams said Monday. “I think that the government does need to use its resources to protect us, but where do you draw the line?”
Williams labeled the Bush administration’s current stance on eavesdropping — which includes spying on conversations involving Americans and those in foreign countries — “a slippery slope.” “Research scholarship is going to be negatively affected,” he said. “And this all really puts a chill into someone like myself.”
Williams is concerned that his own telephone-based research for an upcoming book, which is based in part on communications with family members of Gen. Dostum-Uzbek, a leader of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, could have endangered foreign sources who entrusted him with information. He said that he believes he is “doing the government a tremendous service” by providing an “outside, objective source of information.”
“Instead,” he said, “academics are seen as a threat here — not a resource to be tapped.”
Uli Schamiloglu, a professor of Turkic and Central Eurasian studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said the situation at UMass Dartmouth has significant implications for academic researchers. Capitalizing on U.S. Sen. Russell Feingold’s recent criticism of the Bush administration’s policies on domestic eavesdropping, Schamiloglu wrote a letter to the Wisconsin Democrat on Saturday highlighting some of his concerns.
“My colleagues and I and any other citizen interested in becoming better informed by reading the works of writers whose works have made an impact — for better or for worse — on modern history, politics and society are now at risk,” he wrote. “Even worse, it appears our students can now get into trouble simply for fulfilling the academic requirements of their courses!
“As an American, I am concerned that we are on the path to becoming like the totalitarian countries studied in the course taken by that poor student at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth,” wrote Schamiloglu. “In the Soviet Union banned books were kept in special collections under the control of the KGB. Perhaps that was a more honest approach than not telling people what books are on a ‘watch list’ and then investigating anybody who requests such books. This incident is too eerily familiar to anybody who has studied or visited the Soviet Union and other totalitarian states.”
In his research, Schamiloglu frequently conducts overseas phone calls. “It never occurred to be that our own government might be wiretapping me,” he said Monday. “But I guess that’s fair game now?”
Librarians, too, were deeply troubled by the incident in Massachusetts. “We are disheartened to learn about this,” Deborah Coldwell-Stone, deputy director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, said Monday. “This has all the marks of a totalitarian government. We’re seeing people judged — even though there was no indication whatsoever that this student is a terrorist…. This kind of spying is an abuse of power.”
Coldwell-Stone also indicated that no one in her organization is aware of a federal government “watch list” of books that could potentially get academic researchers into trouble.
Some librarians are especially concerned about how the student’s request through an interlibrary loan program could have been provided to federal officials. Massachusetts has a law that shields libraries from sharing patron information — unless a court requests it.
“At this point, it is difficult to ascertain how Homeland Security obtained the information about the student’s borrowing of the book,” according to a statement released Monday by Ann Montgomery Smith, interim dean of library services at UMass Dartmouth. “The UMass Dartmouth Library has not been visited by agents of any type seeking information about the borrowing patterns or habits of any of its patrons and did not handle the request for the book in question.
“The UMass Dartmouth library has established policies for handling requests under the Patriot Act and has taken every lawful measure possible to protect the confidentiality of patron records,” according to the statement.
Jean F. MacCormack, chancellor of the university, said, “It is important that our students and our faculty be unfettered in their pursuit of knowledge about other cultures and political systems if their education and research is to be meaningful. We must do everything possible to protect the principles of academic inquiry.”
Officials with the University of Massachusetts Amherst interlibrary loan program, which handled the student’s request, did not return calls for comment on Monday.
Several students have written to Williams requesting that he stand up for his right to teach classes even if they provoke government scrutiny.
“As a devoted American, I ask that you do NOT change your curriculum because of this incident,” wrote one student in an e-mail this weekend. “I believe it is important that we do not allow these fears to affect our freedoms. If we do, this will contribute to bringing our fears closer to reality. I suggest you simply offer a disclaimer in those classes that you feel students may be subjected to scrutiny.”
“I’d just like to say that I’m enrolled in your spring Islam and politics class and hope it won’t be canceled,” added another student. “I’m quite willing to be put on whatever watch list is necessary to study it.
Williams said Monday that he plans to go forward with his terrorism-related course.