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John Fountain: Keep classrooms free of surveillance

John Fountain instructs students. | Provided photo.

I will not teach under surveillance.

That was my simple declaration, precipitated by my recent sudden discovery of a black metal gadget, looming over my left shoulder. I was teaching in a lab at Roosevelt University, where I have been a professor over the last 10 academic years.

OPINION

There had been some departmental faculty discussion before the beginning of the semester about safety and security. 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.

Turns out that I — and some other professors — had been teaching for weeks without awareness of the cameras’ existence. Turns out the cameras have the capacity to record video and audio in the classroom labs, where I have had the good fortune and privilege of teaching various journalism courses and encountering amazing students since fall 2007 when I joined Roosevelt from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I was also a tenured full professor.

Looking, I’m sure, a bit befuddled in class upon my discovery, I tried to make light of “Little Brother” potentially monitoring our every move, although we had absolutely nothing to hide. Still, cameras have a way of changing the atmosphere.

I silently vowed to get to the bottom of our little “camera-gate” and to advocate for their immediate removal for reasons not insignificant. Chief among them, as I see it: A compromise of free expression at one of the last bastions of free and open discourse in a society increasingly spiraling into a surveillance-saturated, real-life “Enemy of The State.” The classroom.

No place seems sacred from surveillance anymore. Not even the university classroom.

I remember my classrooms at the University of Illinois as hallowed spaces, where a shy journalism student like myself felt free to engage, free to share, free to express, without me or my professors having to look over our shoulder and worry about censoring ourselves because we were on candid camera. Free speech. Open discourse. No surveillance.

World terrorism — domestic and foreign — has changed the game. Cameras have their purpose. I get that. But where and when do we draw the line in the sand? Choose to live through terror rather than to live in terror?

Concerns over safety and security in a post-911 America have plunged us into a 007 world of assorted cameras — from red light cameras and police blue light and dash cams, to cellphone cameras, webcams and highway cameras — that form an umbrella of public surveillance.

This multitude of electronic eyes and ears has created a world in which civil liberty is too quickly and willingly sacrificed on the altar of so-called increased security and safety that is often just an illusion. It is pervasive in a world in which the very real threat of terrorism lures us intoxicatingly away from First Amendment protections, inch by inch, toward a grave new world.

Bottom line: I find the presence of cameras in the classroom troubling, a trespass on academic freedom — if not also a potential breach of privacy — even in a world of burgeoning public surveillance.

A chilling effect? Maybe more like a crack in the foundation, leading ultimately to the erosion of free expression in the classroom, which, for this one professor, still lies at the heart of academic freedom.

And that’s apparently the case for some others here at Roosevelt, where the decision has been made to remove the classroom surveillance cameras next week, opting for alternative ways of enhancing safety and security.

Now, back to teaching …

Email: Author@johnwfountain.com