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Potsdam universities surprised, concerned about NYPD surveillance of Muslim students

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POTSDAM — Reports of secret New York Police Department investigations into Muslim college students around the Northeast have sparked a string of responses from universities and Muslim groups while raising concerns from college officials in Potsdam.

Clarkson University and SUNY Potsdam were two of at least 15 universities whose Muslim student associations were closely watched by the NYPD in recent years, the Associated Press reported this week.

Officials at both schools said Tuesday that the universities were surprised to learn of the department’s surveillance of the students.

“SUNY Potsdam was not aware of this monitoring,” President John F. Schwaller said in an issued statement. “Our University Police Department was never consulted and the institution did not condone or assist with the NYPD investigation in any way.”

In 2006, the Associated Press reported the NYPD had sent undercover officers to a number of universities, all of which were within New York City limits. On Sunday, it was reported these investigations stretched as far as Buffalo, Pennsylvania and even Potsdam, as police trolled through Muslim student association websites, blogs and forums.

Police spokesman Paul J. Browne, a former Albany reporter for the Watertown Daily Times, told the AP that police monitored student websites and collected publicly available information from 2006 to 2007 to get a “better handle” on what was going on at student associations.

SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson students were targeted as police officials monitored the Northern New York Muslim Student Association, a group made up of Muslim students from area universities, and provided weekly updates on the website’s activity.

“Frankly, I’m a little uncomfortable knowing that students were being targeted exclusively because they were Muslim or had connections to a Muslim website or mosque,” said Susan A. Stebbins, special assistant to the president for diversity at SUNY Potsdam. “Students have the right to religion just like everybody else.”

Clarkson professor Abul N. Khondker, creator of the website that drew the attention of the NYPD, said the site was designed to offer students an opportunity to learn about the religion or to get a translation of the Quran. The site went live in 1994, he said, but hasn’t been updated more than once in the last decade. And many of the links on the page have long since expired.

“I’m sure whoever was clicking on these links was bored to death,” Mr. Khondker said.

The former president of a mosque just outside Potsdam, Mr. Khondker said he learned of the police investigation when he had a phone message from an AP reporter seeking a comment.

At first, Mr. Khondker said, he didn’t believe the story and was surprised to learn the reports were true.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were done by an extreme fringe group of Muslims, Mr. Khondker said, and to target or monitor students associated with the religion is unfair.

“There is no way you can possibly say there are a bunch of people sitting there and doing some terrorism,” Mr. Khondker said. “That’s complete nonsense.”

Mr. Browne defended the investigation to the AP, citing 12 people arrested or convicted of terrorism charges in the United States and abroad who had once been members of Muslim student associations.

Officials at SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson challenged the idea of surveying groups of students based on their religion.

“We expect our faculty and students of all faiths and nationalities to receive fair and equal treatment from those who are serving those interests,” said Kelly O. Chezum, vice president for external relations at Clarkson.

Mr. Schwaller agreed.

“We support appropriate steps to ensure public safety,” he said. “However, unless more information comes to the public’s knowledge, monitoring individuals or groups merely because of their religious beliefs or affiliation does not fall into our definition of appropriate steps to ensure public safety.”

Ms. Stebbins said that the surveillance bordered on civil rights violations and that she was concerned about future consequences for students who were flagged.

She said she worried the distinction of being designated as a potential terrorist could follow students when they apply for a job or undergo a background check.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize the long-term consequences this can have for people,” Ms. Stebbins said. “It could creep up on you in the future.”

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