In July, the tragedy of the Aurora shootings at a screening of “Batman” was the center of national news attention, and the shooter James Holmes became the focus of wild speculation.

In the Denver Post, Joseph Cohn [legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)] condemns the notion that empowering campus threat assessment teams will prevent future incidents. Cohn indicates that such actions would endanger constitutional rights instead.

Reports that alleged Aurora shooter and former University of Colorado medical student James Holmes had been referred to Colorado University’s Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment Team have drawn national attention to the existence of these committees on a growing number of campuses. Threat assessment teams (or “behavioral intervention teams”) aim to prevent violence by evaluating students for supposed warning signs. However well-intentioned, these campus surveillance regimes have already infringed on students’ and professors’ constitutional rights, while their alleged benefits in reducing violence remain speculative.

Holmes’ apparent tie to the University of Colorado’s threat assessment team has led behavioral intervention advocates to hit the airwaves to promote their role on campus and to push for increased powers. Some are even calling for the creation of a National Center for Campus Public Safety to disseminate “best practices” — a development that my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), believes would be a significant mistake.

Campus threat assessment models generally promote increased monitoring, reporting, and recording of benign student behavior both on and off campus. One prominent model identifies “harmful debate” — whatever that is — as a risk factor worth monitoring. It also lists wearing “hoodies” as a warning sign that justifies surveillance. Expanding the purview of these programs further, or creating a new center that would encourage their spread, raises serious concerns for students, faculty, and civil rights advocates.

Universities already wield considerable power to deal with truly threatening student behavior. And unfortunately, the concern that universities might abuse their power by invading student privacy and curtailing protected student speech has already proven justified.

Cohn provides two examples of such power abuse:

  • Former Valdosta State University student Hayden Barnes was expelled after the university president got upset over Barnes’ Facebook posting protesting the proposed construction of a $30 million parking facility on campus.
  • University of Wisconsin-Stout Professor Jim Miller had his poster featuring “Firefly” temporarily removed by campus police because it referenced “killing.”