In the wake of “Postergate,” free speech faces its newest challenge at Harvard Law School.
Reclaim Harvard Law School protesters allege that a recording device has been found in the Caspersen Student Center, which they have renamed “Belinda Hall.” According to a statement released by the protest group, on “Tuesday, April 5, four Harvard Law School students found a voice-activated recording device in Belinda Hall.”
Since February, members of Reclaim have occupied the Caspersen Student Center in an act of protest. The voice-activated Sony recorder was allegedly found adhered by Velcro to a small table near the entrance to Caspersen. A solitary piece of Velcro still remains attached to the bottom of the table where the recorder was allegedly found.
There is now a sign at the entrance to Caspersen with a picture of the Sony recorder that reads, “For your information: Earlier this week, this voice-activated hidden recorder was found beneath a table in this room.”
If the allegations are correct, the offense violates Massachusetts state law, which carries with it a potential sentence of up to five years in prison. Unlike most states, in Massachusetts both parties must consent in order to record a conversation (See Massachusetts General Laws chapter 272, § 99). Federal law is more lenient and only requires one party to the conversation to consent (See 18 U.S.C. 2511(2)(d)).
“Given the criminal nature of the act, we have spent the last few days consulting with counsel to ensure the protection of all potentially harmed parties,” said Reclaim Harvard Law member Rena Karefa-Johnson.
On Friday, three days after Reclaim allegedly found the device, Francis McCrossan, the Harvard Law School Dean for Administration, sent the entire law school an email that acknowledged the university’s awareness of the allegation, as well as Harvard’s referral of the matter to the Harvard University Police Department.
There are no school-operated video cameras directly in the vicinity where the recorder was allegedly found, which means that finding the would-be culprit may prove elusive. However, there is a video camera that monitors Wasserstein Hall that is perched roughly 50 feet away from the alleged location where the recording device was found. It is conceivable that the scene of the crime is within the video camera’s line of sight. According to Harvard Law School’s video security policies, “video images are stored for thirty days.” It is still unclear how long ago the device was planted.
The incident is especially odd considering that the table where the recorder was allegedly found is one of the only areas in Caspersen that could even feasibly be within range of the video camera in Wasserstein Hall.
Reclaim Harvard Law members believe that the recording device was placed in Caspersen in an attempt to suppress their occupation. “We think that this was an intentional effort to surveil our movement,” said third-year student Bianca Harlow.
This latest development arrives in the wake of “Postergate,” when members of Reclaim Harvard Law refused to allow Bill Barlow, a third year student, to attach posters to the walls in Caspersen that were critical of the Reclaim movement.
After an email from Dean Martha Minow, and outrage from fellow students, the protestors relented, and allowed Mr. Barlow to post his signs on a wall the protestors labeled as “Privileged Speech.”
On Friday, Mr. Barlow took to Facebook to condemn the attempts to secretively record students, calling the behavior “unacceptable and illegal under Massachusetts law.”
In its statement, Reclaim Harvard Law calls attention to an incident in November, when black tape was found on the portraits of the tenured black law professors in Wasserstein Hall. In that instance, the black tape found on the portraits resembled the tape initially used to protest the law school’s shield due to its perceived ties to slavery. After months of protest, the Harvard Corporation agreed to retire the shield roughly three weeks ago.
The discovery of the recording device in Harvard Law School appears to be the second free speech violation within the last two weeks.
“Surveillance as a tactic to suppress movements is not new—it has been used historically by the government, institutions and individuals to dismantle racial justice movements by pre-empting action planning, publicly distorting internal dialogues, and chilling speech,” said second-year student Titilayo Rasaki.
After Mr. Barlow was denied the opportunity to post his signs, student sentiment toward Reclaim Harvard Law appeared to sour. It is still unclear how students will react to Reclaim’s message in light of these new allegations. For now, however, only one thing appears to be certain, someone is listening.