Students protest outside the Board of Trustees meeting in March. (Courtesy of a student protest group's Facebook page)

Ithaca, N.Y. — More than 100 students and professors are accusing the Cornell police of conducting threatening interviews with student activists because of their involvement in a protest of the university’s Board of Trustees.

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Cornell police, however, say that the students were interviewed because of a reported crime. Officers are charged with investigating criminal acts regardless of the political motivation of who committed them, and it would be wrong to give preferential treatment to only certain people because they are student activists, Chief Kathy Zoner said.

At around 1 a.m. on March 26, the night before the Board of Trustees meeting, someone broke into the Statler Hall Auditorium and used a private computer in the room, according to Chief Zoner.

Students protest outside the Board of Trustees meeting in March. (Courtesy of a student protest group’s Facebook page)
Students protest outside the Board of Trustees meeting in March. (Courtesy of a student protest group’s Facebook page)

Regardless of the reason, Zoner said, these acts amount to two crimes — 1) Unauthorized access to a computer; and 2) Burglary — that officers are investigating. (Nobody has been charged in the case.)

“Some person or persons broke into a locked room, got into a computer they had no right to access, and altered that computer,” Zoner said in an interview on Wednesday.

“Whether it’s in the name of activism doesn’t lessen that a crime was committed.”

The following story is broken up into 3 parts:

1 – A secretly recorded interview
2 – Why profs, protesters are angered
3 – Zoner responds to claims

1 — Secretly recorded interview

But a large group of students and faculty strongly disagrees with Zoner.

In particular, they say the investigation was politically motivated and dispute the police narrative of the alleged crimes. (The students protested the Board of Trustees in March for a number of reasons, including a $350 new health care fee and tuition increases.)

Backed by a letter signed by at least 95 Cornell professors — and a secretly recorded interview between a student and investigator — this group is loudly decrying what they call a dangerous breach of political free speech rights.

They point primarily to a secretly recorded conversation on April 21 between a police investigator and Daniel Marshall, a Cornell senior and activist.

(The authenticity of the recording has not been verified by Cornell police, but the JCC present at the meeting confirmed its accuracy to the Cornell Daily Sun.)

Photos courtesy of the student group Facebook page

Here are some of the key points the faculty and students draw from that recording, which has been provided to The Voice (as well as The Sun):

1 — Facing prison sentence

A Cornell police investigator told Marshall that Marshall could face three to seven years in prison unless he cooperated with the investigation, according to the recording.

The investigator told Marshall that unless he answered questions he would be charged with felony burglary.

“I don’t like seeing people get in trouble — you’ve spent four years here, you’re about to graduate, do you really want this on your record?,” the investigator asks.

“You will not get a job with a misdemeanor or felony pending in court. I guarantee it.”

2 — ‘There’s criminal charges pending’

Marshall can be heard at the beginning of the tape asking why he is being interviewed.

The investigator initially says that there are no charges pending within the judicial administration system against Marshall, but later clarifies that there are in fact criminal charges pending.

“Here, let me put it on the table, are you ready for this?,” the investigator asks. “…All right, there’s no JA charges pending; are you ready? There’s criminal charges pending. I have the ability to charge you with a D felony and two misdemeanors right now.”

Later on in the interview, Marshall asks the investigator why he wasn’t told about the possible criminal charges at the beginning of the interview.

“I don’t have to,” the investigator responds. “That’s why.”

(In an interview, Marshall did not admit to using the computer.)

3 — Timing of possible arrest

When telling Marshall that he has to cooperate, the investigator suggests that, if he does not, Marshall is likely to be arrested while in class.

“I’m probably going to come into one of your classes the next few days — walk you out in handcuffs, take you to the sheriff’s department, process you, and put you in front of a judge,” the investigator says. “Does that make sense?”

4 — Response to not answering questions

Marshall declines to answer the investigator’s questions. At one point in the tape, the investigator asks, “Why are you trying not to answer the questions, is that like saying you’re guilty at this point?”

Marshall is ready with a response: “No, that’s me saying it’s my right not to answer the questions.”

2 — Why protesters, professors are angered

In an extraordinary gesture, at least 95 Cornell professors have signed a letter written by university history professor Raymond Craib.

“A police officer threatening to drag a student from class in handcuffs? … Flat-footed and heavy-handed: That sums up the actions of the administration and its police force. Is the central administration that insecure?” the letter states.

“Rather than attack they would do better to respond meaningfully to the fair and pointed questions being asked of them by the students (and the faculty) regarding still-unexplained deficits, arbitrary fees, and the lack of shared governance. No more intimidating students. Not in our name.”

Here are a few of other relevant points made by Marshall and made on the blog site, “#fightthefee,” which was started after student protests over a univeristy health care fee:

1 — Disproportionate response

Police don’t have to investigate the student activists for what amounts to a victim-less crime, according to Marshall.

“There are crimes constantly at Cornell that aren’t investigated because of discretion,” Marshall says.

“No one can seriously state that they investigate all crimes they are aware of, no matter how small, trivial or inconsequential.”

2 — Crime not serious

There is no victim to the crime and no property damage was done, said the protesters, citing a police recording from another student interview.

The student activists say that the computer was part of the AV system in the Statler Hotel room — not the personal property of a trustee. “No files were deleted; one was simply uploaded.”

The protesters also said, contrary Zoner’s statement, that the doors for the Statler Hotel Auditorium are not normally locked.

3— Trustees breaking law themselves

Marshall pointed to a letter-to-the-editor in The Sun that says the Board of Trustees meeting should have, by law, been open to the public: http://cornellsun.com/blog/2015/04/27/guest-room-shared-governance-and-the-law/

4 — Well-known professor weighs in

Isaac Kramnick, a well-known Cornell professor of government and author of a recent history about Cornell, criticized the police investigator’s interview of Marshall in an interview with The Voice on Wednesday.

“I do not recall such a blatant effort to silence and/or punish student political protest at Cornell, and that is probably why faculty are so upset at this development,” Kramnick said in a statement, first provided to the Cornell Daily Sun.

5 — Pre-Charter Day ‘intimidation’

Among the claims made by the protesters is that the university was trying to intimidate them in order to prevent Cornell’s Charter Day celebration from being disrupted.

“Intimidation is an obvious reason for the display of force, apparently to prevent any signs of student and faculty dissatisfaction from surfacing at Cornell’s Charter Day celebrations,” the protesters wrote on one blog site.

3 — Zoner responds to claims

In a separate statement, Zoner said that the students interviewed by CUPD “scheduled appointments to speak with an officer and were free to leave at any time.”

“As in any instance where an officer speaks with an individual regarding a criminal investigation, if that person were inclined to bring an advisor or attorney, that advisor or attorney would be permitted to attend the interview,” Zoner said.

“It is my expectation that my staff will use their training and knowledge to conduct investigations in a professional manner.”

Here are 4 other points Zoner made:

1 — Courts’ decision

Zoner added that it’s the decision of the courts — not the police — whether mitigating factors in a protest should lower the punishment.

“In a case where a criminal complaint comes to us our job is to gather facts, gather evidence and follow leads where they come up,” she said.

2 — History of accommodating student protesters

Zoner said the Cornell police have made extensive efforts to accommodate student protesters.

In dozens of campus protests over the last few years, she noted, no student has been arrested. Cornell police have also gone far to make sure the protesters are protected from traffic when a protest moves to the street, she said.

3 — Free to make a complaint elsewhere

Zoner said she has urged anyone with frustrations about her officers’ conduct with them to file a complaint. To date, no one has done so regarding this investigation, she said.

“Currently, no complaints have been filed regarding the officer’s conduct in this investigation and I encourage anyone who has concerns about the manner in which they were treated during any contact with the Cornell Police to utilize the formal review procedure that has long been in place,” she said.

4 — Commitment to civil disobedience?

“Civil disobedience — it’s people who believe in something so strongly they’re willing to take on the consequences of their actions,” she says.

It’s not clear, Zoner said, if those involved are willing to face the repercussions for their actions.


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.