Saturday, April 06, 2002

Tech: University has right to search its computers
Police tactics questioned in vandalism case

Virginia Tech police temporarily seize a professor's computer. Some say an investigation into a spray-painting spree is going too far.


   Virginia Tech police seized the computer of a prominent faculty member earlier this week apparently as part of a vandalism investigation, prompting debate among employees about their right to privacy and property rights at the public institution.

    Two weeks ago, vandals spray painted at least 15 locations on campus with slogans denouncing rape and violence against women and advocating female empowerment. The vandalism apparently took place the night before a rally in Blacksburg intended to increase awareness about violence against women. A group calling itself the "Oak Lane Brigade" - a reference to the campus housing provided to several fraternities and sororities - later claimed responsibility for the spray painting in an manifesto, saying it was intended to break a perceived silence on campus on the issue.

    A number of people received the manifesto from the Oak Lane Brigade, including professor Martha McCaughey, the director of the women's studies program at Tech. McCaughey said police contacted her about the e-mail last week, but she told officers she had already deleted the message.

    On Thursday, Tech officers unexpectedly seized McCaughey's office computer and returned it Friday after apparently copying or scanning files on the hard drive.

    McCaughey said she has student grades, personnel files and intellectual property stored on the machine.

    "I'm really concerned about the confidential information that is on my computer that Virginia Tech seems to believe it owns," McCaughey said. "That information is things students entrusted me with as a professor and also as an informal counselor."

    Tech police Chief Debra Duncan would not comment on any computer seizures or provide details on the vandalism case, saying only that the department is following up on all leads. Duncan did say Tech has the right to seize a university-owned computer without a warrant, however.

    But the incident has several faculty members concerned.

    Laura Parisi, an assistant professor in the women's studies program, voiced her objection to police Thursday when they tried to enter McCaughey's office without her present.

    "Is anything that we bring from home that's in our office suddenly university property because it's in our offices?" Parisi said. "And it seems to be that you have the right to be in the office when they search it."

    Larry Hincker, spokesman for the university, declined to comment on McCaughey's case, but said employees should understand that all equipment supplied to faculty is technically university property. While the university realizes that employees and students use equipment for personal use, school equipment is supposed to be for university-related purposes.

    "That machine doesn't belong to you and the university has the right to the information on that computer," Hincker said.

    Hincker acknowledged, however, that the issue is less clear when dealing with intellectual property or e-mail between students and faculty.

    Others on campus are surprised with how aggressively the university and police are pursuing the vandals.

    Tech police are offering a $500 reward to anyone providing information that leads to a conviction in the case. Police are also investigating whether the Oak Lane Brigade was responsible for messages spray painted on the property of a woman who spoke out publicly against the vandalism.

    Toni Calasanti, an associate professor of sociology, said she has never witnessed such aggressive police work for a nonviolent crime during her 13 years with the university. Calasanti said she disagrees strongly with the vandalism, but believes the investigation has gone too far when the police begin seizing faculty computers.

    "We're talking about a victimless crime here," Calasanti said. "The reaction of the police is so far beyond what it needs to be. We have sexual assaults on campus and all sorts of crimes on campus and nobody comes and seizes somebody's computer."

    Jane Lehr, a Tech graduate student and organizer of the anti-war group AWOL, is circulating a petition asking the university and police to end its search for the vandals and, instead, donate the reward to a local women's center.

Last updated 2000/05/10
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