Students’ right to privacy must be protected

“School officials do not posses absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are ‘persons’ under our Constitution.”

– Justice Abe Fortas, Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969)

In last week’s Record, it was finally confirmed that College Security does have a new policing system. Director of Security Jean Thondike describes the new policy as “community policing;” saying, “security officers will be more visible while patrolling the campus and provide a presence in and around residential halls. Basically it involves breaking down barriers…” (“Security Initiates New Policing Program,” Oct. 5).

I agree with the College’s desire to “break down barriers” between security and students. However, there have been many precarious incidents (both confirmed and unconfirmed) involving Security so far this year, such as the one mentioned in Molly Cummins’ article last week, which illustrated an ethically and legally questionable room search.

As the College embarks into the unknown waters of “community policing,” it must remember three very important characteristics of Williams: First, we have a strong tradition of respecting student privacy. Secondly, Williams had always let students make their own choices, and finally, because of our internationally recognized well-educated and talented student body, Williams students tend to make responsible choices. With this in mind, it is highly evasive and frankly “un-Williamslike” for the College to institute this sort of policy.

I have always been proud to tell friends of mine at other schools that Williams trusts its students. Last year, when I was a freshman, I felt that I could depend on security officers. I was comfortable with their presence and was not intimidated by them. Williams Security provided a very safe environment on campus, while usually not intruding on the private space of students.

This year, however, the feeling on campus towards Security is much different. Rumors of egregious violations of privacy on the part of College officials abound throughout the Williams campus. Whether or not these are true in their entirety, the College needs to remember the need to maintain a fundamental respect of student’s rights.

(I would like to point out that my qualm is not with Security officers, but with their superiors who have concocted the “community policing” scheme. I think I speak for many students when I say this.)

According to the ACLU, which often fights for student rights in the courts, students have basic rights while at school, one of the most important being the right to privacy and a personal space. A reminder to College officials: The ACLU, the country’s most powerful advocate of civil liberties, has not hesitated to take action when these rights are violated. So, whatever this supposed “community policing” approach is, it must stop at the student’s door, or else the folks in Hopkins Hall will have to deal with massive student protest and maybe even civil liberty violation lawsuits. I’m sure that our fair, idyllic prestigious College does not want to attract that sort of attention.

The College must remember that students have paid a substantial amount of money for their rooms and residential facilities – they are for the use of students, and students only. What students do in their rooms is their own business, as long as it does not harm others.

No security officer should have the right to enter a residence hall room, whether the door is closed or not (but especially if it is closed), without the proper students’ consent or sufficient reason to believe that harm is being inflicted upon someone.

A student’s room is his or her private space and accords the same respect from College officials, as a private apartment or residence would get from law-enforcement officers, who are bound by constitutional search warrant requirements.

Also, a clampdown on underage drinking would only heighten the problem. Instead of drinking in the privacy of their suites and entries, with friends (and in the case of first-years, under the care of JAs), stricter enforcement of drinking rules will only increase the mystery and the rebellious allure of alcohol for students.

Students would be driven to drinking in the proverbial woods. They would drink in secret and if any problems were to occur, they would be afraid to contact Security for help, for fear of disciplinary action.

The last thing the College should want to do is convert drinking at Williams into an underground affair. The wise policies of the past have been realistic and pragmatic. By essentially turning a blind eye to “private” drinking, the College created an environment whereby students’ choices were valued and Security was trusted and its decisions were respected, because Security was not some intrusive tool of the administration, but a supportive companion we could lean on in time of need.

If the College changes this course, as it appears to be doing, it is not only an insulting and offensive slap in the face to the student body, but it also threatens to alter radically for the worse student-administration relations. Resentment will build among students, unnecessary paranoia will infect the corridors of Hopkins Hall and underage-drinking injuries will only increase, because drinking would occur out of the eyes of Security, in secret, creating a divisive and distrustful atmosphere on campus.

The bottom line is that students are going to find a way to drink and the College cannot stop it; nothing ever has. Invading the privacy of students through room searches and the like is insulting to our highly educated and generally responsible student body, not to mention unethical and arguably illegal.

Our long-held traditions of allowing for greater student independence should be reinstated. By cracking down on underage drinking, the College will only create a secret underground drinking scene full of rampant, backdoor “sketch.”

Hopefully, the College will be wise (and sane) enough to change its ways and trust students again. This new and unreasonable policy of “community policing” is a veiled attempt to violate some of our very basic rights as students. It is highly offensive to students and will eventually cause more harm than good. I urge the College to reconsider its unprovoked and harmful change in policy.