June 9, 2014 | By April Glaser

17 Student Groups Pen Open Letters on the Toxicity of Mass Surveillance to Academic Freedom

Students are rising up and fighting to protect our Internet. In response to our call to action, seventeen university groups from across the United States have published open letters about the real chilling effects mass surveillance is having right now on academic freedom and life on campus.

Universities are places where the free flow of new ideas and the discussion of controversial topics should be fostered, encouraged, and amplified. But when students and researchers know that the government is recording our communications, our data, and our online behavior, students can’t speak freely. Speech is chilled. In response, we launched our call for students across the country to write letters about the effects of illegal, unconstitutional government spying in their campus communities last month.

Students and researchers get it. “Mass warrantless surveillance by the NSA has restricted our ability to freely think, act, research, innovate, and share ideas in a multitude of ways,” reads the letter from Stanford University students penned by student Devon Kristine Zuegel.

Students have been central to the movement to put an end to illegal mass spying since Snowden’s leaks hit the press. As the letter from Temple University students notes, it was Temple student Ali Watkins, who broke the story last March about CIA surveillance of members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

The campus letters also call attention to the effects of mass government surveillance on international students and global collaboration in research. These international connections are a bragging point of many academic institutions. But as the letters from Purdue University students and Queens College students note, “NSA surveillance specifically targets foreign nationals, regardless of whether they have actually done anything wrong.”

Both of these institutions are highly ranked, in part for their diverse, international student communities. And student activists on both campuses point out that mass government spying that targets non-US persons is not only discriminatory, but stifles student cross-cultural collaboration, especially on politically sensitive topics.  

“Certain demographics of students, such as the LGBTQ community that remain closeted, could be made public,” wrote Liz Hawkins in the letter she composed from the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. “This also includes students in [search] of mental health care,” the UNLV student letter continues. And she’s right.

Students often come to universities excited to explore their identity and find community that might not have been available back home. But when we know that the government is collecting information and storing it in a way that could be potentially used against us, we don’t say what we would say otherwise. Students are less likely to associate with campus groups and less likely to engage fully in campus life.

Our call to write letters was assisted by the organizing prowess of the Student Net Alliance (SNA), a group dedicated to bringing the fight for digital rights into campus communities all over the world. The SNA amplified the call to action into a campaign called Students Against Surveillance. And we’re glad they did. Students are powerful forces for change, and intuitively understand the potential of an open, free Internet, not hampered by intrusive government spying that undermines our basic rights, like our freedom of speech and freedom from unwarranted search and seizure.

If you’re a student or a researcher and want to write an open letter to take a stand against NSA surveillance on your campus, see our letter-writing guide and get in touch with either the Student Net Alliance or with us. Writing a letter is a great way to spark debate on campus and build the foundation for future organizing. The fight against NSA spying is going to be a long one. And students will be a critical force in building a movement to raise awareness, push for change, and put an end to mass government surveillance.


Major thanks to the Student Net Alliance and their founder Alec Foster; Tommy Collison, a student board member of the Student Net Alliance who designed the website www.studentsagainstsurveillance.com; and to Somerset Bean, the designer of the Students Against Surveillance logo.

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