Student organizations express frustration over UMN monitoring events

Some student groups recently discovered through a public records request that the University’s Department of Public Safety is monitoring some of their events, which the University said is a common practice for public safety.

The+University+of+Minnesota+Police+Department+on+Thursday%2C+Feb.+17%2C+2023.

Image by CJ Bonk

The University of Minnesota Police Department on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2023.

by Gillian Haveman

Some student groups at the University of Minnesota said they are frustrated after discovering the Department of Public Safety (DPS) has been monitoring details surrounding their protests and rallies since at least 2020.

Cal Mergendahl, a first-year graduate student at the University, said they put in a public records request at the end of December 2022 because they were curious if DPS was monitoring student group events.

“I had, like, sort of an inkling that there might be something here,” Mergendahl said.

Mergendahl said they filed a request to see if DPS was monitoring events held by the student organizations Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) and Students for Climate Justice. They asked for records dating back to November 2020.

According to University records, DPS has been monitoring details of at least these three student organizations’ rallies and protests. These details include where the event will occur, the route participants will take if marching, who is involved and what the purpose of the protest or rally is.

Jake Ricker, the University’s public relations director, said in an email statement to the Minnesota Daily that DPS tracks details surrounding large campus events, including major athletic events, campus celebrations like Spring Jam, political events, speaking events and concerts. He said this is a common practice in civic management and public safety.

“The department tracks details surrounding events that have the possibility to disrupt normal University operations, which include publicly advertised demonstrations or protests,” Ricker said.

Ricker said DPS does not selectively monitor student group events, but bases its monitoring on a case-by-case basis, depending on if the event has the potential to bring more visitors to campus, affect building access and if it could impact pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

“Freedom of expression is at the core of instruction and discovery and essential to the University of Minnesota mission,” Ricker said. “It’s our commitment and constitutional obligation as a public institution to invite new ideas, different worldviews and open dialogues that challenge all of us: students, faculty and staff.”

Haley Bergren, secretary of the YDSA at the University, said she was frustrated when she found out about DPS monitoring the group’s protests and public demonstrations.

Bergren expressed frustration over student group protests potentially falling under the category of possibly disrupting day-to-day operations at the University. She said in her experience, all protests YDSA and other organizations have done have been peaceful.

“I just find it so disappointing that the University is so opposed to students having their own opinions and voices,” Bergren said. “I think it creates unnecessary tension between the University and the students.”

Gracelyn McClure, a member of Students for Climate Justice, said knowing DPS has been monitoring some of their events does not change how they operate because they assumed beforehand they were being watched.

McClure said they have noticed University of Minnesota Police Department officers present at some of their protests.

“I feel like if the University would actually communicate [with student groups], they would understand our intentions better and understand this surveillance isn’t necessary,” McClure said.

McClure said they think this shows a lack of trust and transparency between the University and students.

“I find it interesting that students are exercising their rights, but the University administration feels they have to take precautions around that,” said Siobham Moore, a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College who is also a member of SDS. “I think that’s frankly a little telling of how the admin sees their relationship with the student body.”

Moore, McClure and Bergren all said discovering this information did not surprise them but did disappoint them.