May 15, 2014 | By April Glaser

Students Coast to Coast Write Open Letters about the Effects of Government Surveillance on Academic Life

Students are starting to speak out about how mass surveillance affects life on campus. Two different open letters from students—at the University of Oregon and New York University—have been published in the last two weeks. And both point to the real life consequences of mass government surveillance on academic freedom and life on campus.

The letter from the University of Oregon notes that government surveillance “impairs our collective ability to imagine and organize.” Penned by law students, but open for signatures from the entire campus community, the letter discusses how U.S. government surveillance targets non-U.S. persons and thus undermines their ability to collaborate with their peers and fellow researchers abroad. International collaboration and study abroad programs are often points of pride for universities, but mass government surveillance chills those relationships. It’s difficult to feel confident talking about controversial research when big brother is watching.

The University of Oregon letter just launched today and should really start to pick up steam next semester. In the meantime, students, professors and members of the campus community are invited to sign on. “This open letter is a good start to giving a voice to students who value critical thought, privacy and the free exchange of ideas in the digital world,” said Sharia Mayfield, who organized the letter. “I am particularly concerned about the illegal implications of mass surveillance."

The NYU students feel similarly. Their letter was written by a group of undergraduates EFF met at a Student Speakeasy that we co-hosted last month with the Student Net Alliance, an awesome network of individuals involved in campus communities that support sound Internet law and policy. The Student Net Alliance got its start at NYU.

“We came to New York University with the hope that we could learn with confidence, without fear that what we are studying or investigating could potentially be used against us,” reads the letter penned by NYU Internet activists Tommy Collison, Luc Lewitanski, and Hannah Weverka, who are forming a campus group to continue to raise awareness, organize campus events, and bring campaigns for digital freedom to fellow students.

The NYU letter has already collected signatures from over 100 students across the university. That’s because mass surveillance deeply impacts campus life. And some students at NYU may feel this more than others. The letter reads, “our Muslim and Arab peers are being targeted,” referring to a 2012 report that the NYPD had bugged the meeting and prayer rooms of the Muslim Student Association at NYU and other universities up and down the east coast.

If you’re a student interested in organizing a letter from your campus about how mass surveillance affects academic freedom, please be in touch. The students at NYU have generously offered to help other campuses host their letter on the domain studentsagainstsurveillance.com. “Our letter campaign got the discussion going here at NYU, and we're already seeing it start to spread to other campuses,” Tommy Collison, the NYU and Student Net Alliance activist that set up the website told us. “Let's not give up our rights without a fight."

We are delighted that these students are taking a stand. And we hope that other campuses join them in protest. We know that this only the beginning.  Students grew up with the Internet. It’s their future. And from the looks of it, they’re ready to fight to protect it.

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