Samantha Park

While revelations on the federal government’s surveillance of U.S. citizens’ phone records and emails continue to become public, UT has also disclosed its own forms of on-campus data collection using UT IDs.

Whenever students, staff and faculty swipe their UT IDs to enter a building on campus, the University of Texas Police Department can find out where they have been, without a warrant. Information gathered through card swipes is stored in a data log immediately accessible to UTPD for 30 days and then removed, UTPD spokeswoman Rhonda Weldon said.

Although the National Security Agency has been the subject of criticism for its surveillance, local officials say such monitoring is not uncommon and does not break the law. UT officials say its information on UT IDs is only accessed on a limited basis for specific purposes.

“Access control records are turned over to UTPD if they are needed to investigate criminal activity in specific areas,” Weldon said. “The security system card access records are never used for employee management or student time and attendance purposes.” 

UT IDs are required for access to “controlled areas,” such as student living areas in Jester Dormitory and Kinsolving Dormitory, as well as research laboratories on campus. All new buildings opened in the last five years, including the Belo Center for New Media and the Liberal Arts Building, have been installed with card access points.  

Cynthia Posey, UTPD spokesperson, could not provide a number of times the data has been accessed, but said UTPD has asked for these records on “numerous” occasions. UTPD also advises Information Technology Services, the department that distributes IDs and manages technology on campus, on where to install new card access points. 

The Austin Police Department uses a similar technique with city employees at controlled municipal buildings, said Samantha Park, spokeswoman for the city of Austin.

Park said city employee access card data could be obtained by APD without a warrant, but that a formal process requiring approval of building managers was necessary for access. Park said most inquiries from APD on card data are related to criminal investigations. 

“If APD makes a request, Building Services tries to work with them as best as possible,” Park said. “If there is ever a question about the request, the best course of action is determined internally between Building Services, APD and management.”

UTPD’s access to the proximity access data does not require a warrant because of current legal precedent, said Robert Chesney, associate dean of the school of law.

“It may be the case that not a lot [of] students know this is going on, but we’re talking about the information that’s being gathered because you were using UT-issued IDs to access UT property with permission from UT,” Chesney said.

Chesney said he thought it was a practical measure to use the information for administrative purposes and crime prevention because of the high value of technology and goods stored on campus facilities. 

“Recent events have all made us stop and think about what the rules should be,” Chesney said. “That’s a question we should all ask. But I don’t think it’s constitutionally required, or that there’s anything illegal or untoward about UT handling information in this way.”

A man is taken into custody during the most recent Occupy Austin arrests last Thursday night. Protestors have filed a lawsuit claiming that the City of Austin is violating the first amendment by banning arrested protestors from returning to City Hall.

Photo Credit: Jorge Corona | Daily Texan Staff

A lawsuit filed in federal court Monday morning against the city of Austin claims their policy of banning arrested protesters from returning to City Hall is a violation of the First Amendment.

Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project and attorney for the two plaintiffs, said the city’s criminal trespassing policy, which came into effect on Nov. 1 after the arrest of 38 protesters, is a clear violation of First Amendment political speech rights and has prevented 95 people from returning to City Hall.

“I’ve never heard of any other place in this country that is trying to ban people’s free speech like they are in Austin,” Harrington said. “It’s hypocrisy at its greatest.”

Samantha Park, information specialist for the city of Austin, said the city’s law department is currently reviewing the charges and is unable to comment because the litigation is pending.

She said the only comment the city has at this time is to point out that the Texas Civil Rights Project’s press release contained factually incorrect statements.

“We haven’t banned anyone for more than one year, only 81 people have been banned since Oct. 30 and the name of the City Hall plaza is not Freedom Plaza,” Park said.

Harrington said the two plaintiffs in the case were arrested for non-violent crimes, and the city has unconstitutionally restricted their right to free speech.

Harrington said one of the plaintiffs in the case, Rudy Sánchez, was arrested while videotaping the police during the Oct. 30 Occupy Austin morning protests and was later told he was banned for two years from returning to the City Hall protests.

He said the second plaintiff in the case, Kris Sleeman, was arrested at City Hall in the evening of Oct. 30 for an outstanding bicycle ticket warrant and was told he would be banned from returning to City Hall for one year.

Harrington said the case could be decided in a little as two weeks and is confident that his clients will be successful.

“If we don’t reach an agreement with the city before tomorrow, then it will go to court within two weeks,” Harrington said. “The actual case will be decided in one day and I think the law is definitely on our side.”

Occupy Austin protester Anton, who chose not to give his last name because of privacy concerns, said the protests will be expanding to include the Capitol building to allow the people banned from City Hall to participate in the demonstrations.

“If we only stay at City Hall we will never be able to grow,” Anton said. “We already have almost 100 people who can’t participate in it, and that will increase if more arrests occur.”

Anton said expanding Occupy Austin to the Capitol would be helpful for the movement because of the increased space, more pleasant scenery and a friendlier police force to work with.

“The state police are a lot friendlier than Austin Police Department [officers],” Anton said. “We already know from our experience at City Hall that the city is not interested in negotiating with us.”

Anton said he has spoken with a lawyer who confirmed it is legal for protesters to remain on Capitol grounds for 24 hours a day, but the issue of sleeping is still uncertain because no permanent structures, such as tents, will be allowed.

“We will be learning from our mistakes at City Hall,” Anton said.

Printed on Tuesday, November 22, 2011 as: TCRP fils free speech lawsuit against Austin