Wednesday, April 10, 2002
Campus police take machine during vandalism investigation
Va. Tech faculty voice alarm over seized computer

Professors have expressed the most concern about privacy rights regarding intellectual property and personal e-mails from students.


   BLACKSBURG - Virginia Tech's faculty leaders on Tuesday strongly criticized the university's sudden seizure of a professor's office computer as part of a vandalism investigation.

    Members of the Virginia Tech Faculty Senate passed a resolution Tuesday expressing dismay at the way Tech police confiscated associate professor Martha McCaughey's computer last week to trace an e-mail from a group of alleged campus vandals. The resolution also expressed concern about the incident's effect on free speech on campus and faculty control of legitimate, confidential material stored on their office computers.

    "I think most of us feel a sense of outrage that I can walk into my office tomorrow morning and find my computer is not there because the police took it," said Faculty Senate President Leon Geyer.

    On March 21, vandals spray-painted anti-rape slogans on at least 15 locations around campus, causing up to $10,000 in damage. A group calling itself the "Oak Lane Brigade" claimed responsibility for the vandalism in a manifesto sent to McCaughey, the director of the women's studies program at Tech.

    Campus police asked McCaughey to give them access to her computer to attempt a trace. The police say McCaughey refused to cooperate.

    McCaughey, who was heading out of town at the time, said she told investigators she didn't want officers tampering with her machine in her absence and offered to talk with the police after her return. McCaughey said this week that she wanted to back up her files in case they were deleted.

    Police seized the university-owned computer Thursday over McCaughey's objections and copied the hard drive before returning the machine the next day.

    Virginia Tech Police Chief Debra Duncan told the Senate members Tuesday that her department checked with the university's legal counsel before taking action. The police were told that the computer and all of its contents were university property, although they obtained a search warrant to scan McCaughey's e-mail files.

    Duncan, who joined Tech's force last year, said she was only following university procedure and state law as part of a legitimate investigation. Duncan recommended that professors take their concerns about university policy regarding property and privacy to school administrators. Senate members said they planned to meet with school officials.

    "I don't want to have an adversarial relationship with the faculty," Duncan said. "I'm willing. I'll work with you. And whatever I can do, I'll do."

    Professors have expressed the most concern about privacy rights regarding intellectual property and personal e-mails sent to them by students who assumed privacy.

    McCaughey and several other professors said they often receive personal e-mails from students about such issues as rape and domestic abuse.

    McCaughey also said she could tell that police opened not only e-mails but also word processing documents on her research into sexuality and other non-vandalism-related topics. McCaughey and numerous other faculty members have questioned whether she was targeted because of her research on feminism.

    "Do we want to have a climate where we feel politically repressed? Or do we want a climate where we feel free to express ideas?" McCaughey, a Senate member, asked Duncan.

    The police chief responded: "This is because of an investigation, not because of who you are ... or what you stand for."

Last updated 2002/05/02
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