By Dominic Gwinn
At the beginning of the Fall 2016 academic year, Roosevelt students utilizing the fifth floor of the Gage building found that their classrooms were under video surveillance.
Set unobtrusively in the ceilings of the classroom labs, the cameras were relatively unnoticed for the first few weeks of class with many students and professors simply unaware of their existence as there was never any notification from the Department of Communications or campus security.
Many students simply ignored the cameras and assumed that their installation was simply another layer of security, but when Roosevelt Journalism Professor John Fountain became aware that his classes were under constant surveillance he voiced his concerns within the Department of Communications, and in his weekly opinion column in the Chicago Sun-Times.
“There had been some departmental faculty discussion before the beginning of the semester about safety and security,” Fountain writes. “But I seem to have missed the memo on the decision to install cameras in Mac-equipped classrooms: two where courses are taught and that also serve as student computer labs; and another dedicated solely for student lab use.”
The Gage building’s fifth floor offers students enrolled in communications courses a variety of tools often required to complete assignments in journalism and media studies programs such as DSLR cameras, audio recorders and video cameras.
Labs within Gage’s fifth floor are also equipped with 27-inch Retina Display iMac computers that host photo, audio and video editing software required for students to complete class assignments. It is also home to student run media outfits like the Torch, the student radio and television operations, The Blaze, and RU Fire TV.
IMC Major Katie Hay wonders why no one was told about the cameras if they were indeed only to ensure the technology would be safe. “If it was for technology, why weren’t we told we were being filmed?” Hay said.
“I feel like it’s something more,” states 24-year-old Alexis Hauskin. “It’s not like someone’s going to carry out a whole desktop without someone noticing, you know?”
Currently, access to equipment is restricted to students majoring in degrees under Communications Department. Students seeking to check out equipment must first present a Roosevelt ID, and sign a release form which is logged into a system by a lab aide.
Equipment is rented out on a 24 hour basis. Lab computers are also limited to communications students, and monitored by a student lab aide Monday through Friday.
Paul Acosta, a 28-year-old junior, IMC major and military veteran, felt that the placement of cameras seemed odd. “A big part of security is being informed about security measures,” Acosta said. “The strangest thing to me is that we weren’t informed.”
“I was O.K. with them being in the labs,” admits 23-year-old RU Fire TV station manager Heather Rowlison, a senior Journalism major. “But when I found out that they were in the classroom it made me feel really uncomfortable because they had been running when we have had discussions in our classroom setting that, to me, I felt very secure and private.”
Rowlison’s disagreement with the cameras in the classrooms stems from the revelation of personal details about her life during the course of a class, and her lack of knowledge about the cameras.
“I would definitely say it made me feel very, very uncomfortable. I shared things in class that are part of my personal life, and I just would worry if someone were to hack into — years down the road, you know? Would it affect my chance of running for some sort of office? I don’t know that I will or won’t, but if they dig up some of this private stuff it would be very harmful to me.”
The camera’s footage, according to a source, are housed within the Communication Department’s private server, and any access is restricted to only a select group of trained Roosevelt staff. However, it remains unclear at this time what, if any, information was recorded, viewed or stored within the server.
Illinois state law does allow for video surveillance in public settings like classrooms, however audio recordings are restricted to “one-party” consent. Anyone wishing to record a conversation, according to the state law, must first obtain the permission from any individuals before recording.
The U.S. National Institute of Justice Research Report conducted on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice in 1999 concluded that cameras cannot be used in places where one has “a reasonable expectation of privacy,” and that while surveillance of classrooms is often a contentious topic, “it is probably wise to use cameras in classrooms only when the teacher is given an option and notification that a camera is to be used.”
The report further states that, “Signage can be an important legal component in the use of video cameras in schools.”
In a statement to the Torch, Professor Fountain states, “The presence of surveillance cameras in the classroom isn’t something I could ever support because it potentially inhibits or discourages free and open discourse which ought to occur in the sanctity of a university classroom. The idea of surveillance cameras in the classroom, particularly a journalism classroom, seems to undermine free speech, free expression, a free press and violates the assumption of privacy within the classroom, even at a private university, especially one where we embrace “social justice.”
Fountain questioned if being recorded made some students less likely to participate in classroom discussions on certain subjects.
“I’m sure they were. And as a professor, I found it disconcerting having an electronic eye over my shoulder,” Fountain said.
After pressure from students and faculty, the cameras were removed during the first week of October. A brief statement was sent to students outlining new security protocols for accessing the Gage’s fifth floor. Students are now required to tap their Roosevelt IDs to a small electronic lock when accessing the the floor, similar to how students, faculty and staff already must tap their ID’s when entering the Wabash or Auditorium Building.
In a statement to the Torch regarding the cameras and subsequent security measures, Marian Azzaro, Chair of the Department of Communications at Roosevelt stated, “The Department of Communication installed security cameras when the computer labs were upgraded. The purpose was to protect the university’s investment. When a member of the community voiced concern regarding the security cameras, we discussed and took steps to select an alternative method and that alternative is currently being implemented. If members of the community have thoughts on safety or security, we hope they will speak to Campus Safety or their Department Chair.”
“I wouldn’t mind tapping into to get into the communication labs,” Rowlison said of the newly implemented security measures. “I’m a communication student, I utilize the equipment; I utilize the labs, and I feel that extra security is good because we have a lot of valuable things on this floor.”
“Transparency equals trust,” Hay said. “When you are transparent about that, what you intend to use this information for then we can all feel confident and not have to question why they’re doing this.”