The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has denounced Harvard University for photographing protesters at a political rally last month near Harvard Square during which university police arrested two people.
Officials at the ACLU also want Harvard to explain why an undercover officer was taking photographs at the rally, what the university intends to do with the photos, and whether it is sharing information with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Forces, as have universities around the country.
"The concern we have is that Harvard police were gathering intelligence about a lawful political protest on public property," said John Reinstein, the ACLU's legal director. "A university is a place where we would expect there's room for political discussion, where appropriate protests would be allowed, as part of academic freedom. We want to find out the scope of the university's activities."
In a statement, Joe Wrinn, a Harvard spokesman, said the university is not participating with the Joint Terrorism Task Forces and that it does not have a political intelligence unit or an undercover unit.
"The detective who made the arrest in question is well known throughout the University community," Wrinn said. "The arrested parties were not arrested for protesting, but for their disorderly conduct, which occurred within a university building."
He added that Harvard does not have a policy on filming protests. "We film when there is potential for violence, property damage, vandalism, HUPD arrest, or other circumstances require it," he said.
Asked what the university does with the photographs, Wrinn said the campus police department "has a policy of not discussing security details publicly."
The ACLU's accusations were first reported by the Harvard Crimson.
The rally, held in support Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, occurred March 3 on a sidewalk along Massachusetts Avenue. In a police report, Harvard detective Thomas Karns wrote that he was conducting "plain clothes surveillance" and "photographing the demonstrators for intelligence gathering."
One of the protestors, Patrick Keaney, 38, a mechanic from Boxborough, asked Karns whether his photos "had gotten his good side," according to the report.
Keaney was with another protestor, Lisa Nieves, 29, of Jamaica Plain, who had a camera and began snapping pictures of Karns.
"I put my hood up so that she would not be able to photograph my face," Karns wrote in the report. "Miss Nieves bent down and attempted to shove the camera near my face, when I put my head down. I told Miss [Karns] that she was now on private property and not to take my picture. She said I had taken her picture and that she could take mine."
Karns wrote that he then entered the Holyoke Center on Massachusetts Avenue and Nieves followed him and persisted in trying to take his picture. He repeated that she was on private property and then identified himself as a Harvard police officer, according to his report.
"I told her I wanted to know who she was and why she was taking my photograph," he wrote.
Karns wrote he put his hand up in front of him and Nieves "walked into it on two occasions." He wrote she began screaming that he was assaulting her. "She yelled this several times, until a crowd gathered," he reported.
Karns then arrested her on charges of disturbing the peace. When he placed handcuffs on her right wrist, Keaney linked arms with her in an effort to prevent the officer from cuffing her left wrist, wrote Karns, who also arrested Keaney on charges of interfering with the arrest of Nieves.
The two are being represented by the ACLU. Reinstein said prosecutors dropped the charges against Nieves but that Keaney still faces the charges.
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com.
© 2008 The Boston Globe