You may not know it, but Campus Council is currently considering a piece of legislation that will probably be the most important decision made by a student governing body this year. Their resolution concerning on-campus safety contains a number of suggestions that could have significant effects on students' lives. Most of the proposals are common-sensical, if expensive, like increasing lighting and replacing gender-specific bathroom locks with card readers.
The resolution also includes a proposal that deserves special attention from the entire student body: The installation of video cameras outside the entrances of every residence hall. Whether or not Campus Council decides that this measure is a good idea, we, as a student body, should be aware of the implications of such surveillance.
This resolution reflects the conflict between liberty and safety, a dilemma that has become increasingly important in both local and national arenas.
You may have heard Ben Franklin's thoughts on this subject, which I will paraphrase as "He who gives up liberty for safety deserves neither." This is not true. Every governing system short of anarchy requires its members to give up some liberty for safety. And in this case, as in all cases of this sort, the question is one of balance.
Are cameras at every door an invasion of student privacy? Absolutely. Are they an important and effective safety measure? Possibly. Since it's hard for me to think of something I would do at the entrance to my dorm about which I wouldn't want the administration to know, the potential benefits of having cameras there may outweigh the invasion of privacy. It is important, though, to consider the direction in which this measure would take us.
We should never give up privacy, or any other liberty, casually. If we do decide to put up the cameras, we must be careful that the decrease in privacy is not accompanied by a decrease in our respect for privacy, so that we are not moving toward a system of constant surveillance. We have to know what we're giving up, anyway, so that next time the same decision arises, we will know, at each step, whether our sacrifice of privacy is worth the increased security. If we allow fear to push us into unreasonably ceding our privacy as if it were worthless, we will quickly have none left.
Campus Council was right to delay action on this measure, which might otherwise have been passed before most students even knew of its existence. The idea that such a proposal could have been passed and possibly implemented with so little student input is frightening. Regardless of the final decision on the matter, any decision with such a large impact on students' lives, and especially on students' rights, should be justified to, discussed by, and approved by the student community. Campus Council has been granted an enormous amount of power under the new residential life plan. It has an obligation to ensure that such discussion accompanies all proposals of this magnitude if it wants to fulfill its new role effectively while remaining responsive to students' needs.
The encouraging part about this situation is that it represents an opportunity for the system to work. A student governing body has a chance to make, with plenty of student input, a decision that actually affects student life. Do cameras outside your door seem too Orwellian for comfort? Or does your comfort demand the increased security surveillance might provide? If students can make this decision, rather than have it made for them, we might have a residential policy that actually reflects students' needs, while respecting students' rights. And that would be a bigger victory than cameras, or the lack thereof, could ever be.
Russell Williams is a Pratt junior. His column appears every third Wednesday.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.