Brandeis’s metal-detector searches

Last fall I wrote about the outrage of Brandeis Univeristy’s making campus visitors go through metal detectors. Since then I’ve found some information indicating that Brandeis has been ignoring its own policy and thereby depriving visitors of protection against theft by guards. The Brandeis Leadership Handbook (PDF) makes it clear that when metal detectors are used, Waltham police must be present: “Waltham Police is required for events using metal detectors or serving alcohol.” I didn’t see any police presence. Without police, there’s little to stop guards from pinching a bit of change as campus visitors have to empty their pockets. One of the guards took my stuff off into a corner, where he could easily have pocketed some of my change without anyone’s noticing, and he made noises about taking my Swiss Army knife.

I recently wrote to the Waltham Police to ask if they had assigned a police officer to Lyman Ballroom on November 5, 2012, and if having one was a legal requirement. The reply that I received said only:

I am in receipt of your letter of complaint regarding your experience at Brandeis University on November 5, 2012.

The Waltham Police Department does not have jurisdiction nor the authority to investigage allegations of an unlawful search on their private property or investigate the University for allegedly violating their own policy. Jurisdiction lies with Brandeis University or possibly with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.

The reply addressed only my request to look into whether Brandeis is conducting illegal searches. This is probably just normal bureaucratic evasiveness, but it leaves me with no more reason than before to think that there was an officer whom I didn’t notice present. At the same time, I haven’t found any indication that a police presence is legally required; a Web search hasn’t turned up any mention of such a requirement.

This indicates that Brandeis’s unsupervised searches of visitors are probably legal, but they’re in violation of an implied promise of protection. It might actually be worse if a cop were there; the police might arrest people for vaguely suspicious things found in their pockets, and by “voluntarily” accepting the search as a condition of attending an event they’ve already paid for or having an important meeting, visitors very likely give up their Fourth Amendment rights. I’d rather have loose change or even a pocket knife stolen than be arrested.

Whether you run the risk of arbitrary arrest or of petty theft, the basic problem is the contempt which Brandeis shows for its visitors’ personal privacy.

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A letter to the president of Brandeis

I have just printed out and will shortly send the following letter.

November 6, 2012

Frederick M. Lawrence, President
MS 100 Brandeis University
P.O. Box 549110
Waltham, MA 02454-9110

Dear Mr. Lawrence:

I am outraged by the treatment I was given by employees of Brandeis University yesterday evening.

Last night I went to a small concert by Heather Dale and friends (by which I mean friends of mine as well as hers) at Lyman Ballroom. To get in, I was made to empty my pockets, go through a metal detector, and then was wanded down because the detector went off anyway.

One of the three guards present noted my Swiss Army knife and asked if I was planning to use it. Since I didn’t expect to be opening any difficult plastic bags, I said no. He told me that if I had said yes, he would have confiscated it. I must conclude from what he said that guards sometimes confiscate people’s property.

A private institution such as Brandeis has the right to set ludicrous conditions of entry such as passing through a metal detector as if I were in an airport and not a university. It does not, however, have any right whatsoever to take visitors’ property away from them. That is theft, plain and simple.

I do not know if this “confiscation” is authorized. If not, then Brandeis employees are stealing from visitors and this needs to be stopped. If it is authorized, then Brandeis University is stealing from visitors.

As a further example of the surveillance-state mentality which evidently pervades Brandeis, the guest Wi-Fi demanded my name, phone number, and email address as a condition of access. As an example of the stupid security theater that goes with this, the SSL certificate of the Wi-Fi server was expired. I could have been giving that information to anyone. Since the connection was untrusted, I had to give false information. For your records, I was the one who signed in as “”

The treatment I received yesterday at Brandeis was outrageous, and I hope I will never have to set foot on its campus again.


Gary McGath

Update: As of November 20, I’ve received no reply. It appears from the silence that Brandeis has no problem with guards who steal from visitors. If I do hear anything I’ll post a further update.

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