The FBI and Student Surveillance: A Sputnik for Our Time

Censorship, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Ross Sempek

Sound the Alarm! Sputnik III is nigh! Except with China, less a dog named Laika, and not in space, unless you mean 5G cyberspace…then, yes. Look, I kid, but this is (essentially) what Senator Mark Warner opined during his orations at the Brookings Institute in May of this year. An appropriate venue for such a topic; yet it’s also ironic for a body that values intellect to host Mr. Warner to talk about his ancillary efforts bolstering a recent FBI advisory for university brass to monitor their Chinese students and colleagues.

hand holding binoculars w/ chalkboard

Government proponents of these measures curate their messaging to ensconce themselves in legal recourse. These aren’t mandatory guidelines, they say (that would be ridiculous). These are simply advisory. If you ask me, it makes no difference. The act of sounding an alarm about being prejudicial toward speech in a milieu that relies on free speech effectively puts those rights on ice. I haven’t read the unclassified documents that informs this approach to national security, so I can only take them at their word about the international threats facing the US. However, this aggressive method of creating wakes then casting a wide net indelibly afflicts the US Chinese student body, and their ability to create and receive speech.

The need to mitigate type of censorship is so important, that ALA’s first amendment and censorship resources publishes it above the fold.

“…the First Amendment gives everyone residing in the United States the right to hear all sides of every issue and to make their own judgments about those issues without government interference or limitations.”

It’s not like those in the US on a student visa can’t enjoy the same rights as citizens. And their ability to exercise these rights is not only important for free speech itself, but for morale overall. Excellent scholarship will only get stifled by profiling students. The US cannot be a paragon of innovation by derailing scholarship with a discriminatory national security policy.

Today’s political landscape and its normalized xenophobia makes stories like these wretchedly apropos, while at the same time ignoring the real impact these attitudes have on people of color in this country. The fallout of these events spreads to communities nationwide and reifies the contrived inferiority of historically-underrepresented groups. Given that international students already get vetted, and the FBI’s efforts are hopelessly after-the-fact, the undertaking of such practices feels more like psychological warfare than anything immediately pragmatic. What’s understood now, though, is that the inclusive havens of education and librarianship are not exempt from the strong-arm of the feds.  

It’s telling that Mr. Warner invoked Sputnik and coupled it with nationalistic language (and fists, lots of fists). An irrational hysteria marred the space-race era, and as a result of this modern campaign Mr. Warner ensures a Sputnik-esque paranoia will mature in prejudicial mindsets. The Senator’s tone is deceptively diplomatic, yet his message is anything but: America and the West must dominate the technological landscape. Stanford and MIT support this vision and have severed ties with the telecom-giant, Huawei. But the responses from universities like UC Berkeley and Yale are heartening examples of an inherent commitment to the principles of education, free speech and intellectual freedom. Berkeley’s position is uniquely poignant as the statement implicitly asks its readers to consider the fact that its home state claims dark tales of dehumanizing extremes in racial profiling. Let’s not go back to that; not to Sputnik, not to internment camps, not to being “great.” Let’s move beyond prejudice with reason at the helm and the light of intellectual freedom to guide us. 

Ross Sempek

Ross Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate and a Library Assistant at the Happy Valley Public Library just outside of Portland, Oregon. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.

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