A group of Harvard Law School students who have been occupying a room on campus to host conversations about inequality and racial diversity say they discovered a recording device this week secretly attached to the bottom of a table.
Activists from the group Reclaim Harvard Law School said Friday that they fear the device, which can be voice-activated, was being used to pick up sensitive conversations about sexual assault and race that was held between students who thought they were in a “safe space.”
Since February, the group has been occupying the Haas Lounge of the law school’s Caspersen Student Center, which they renamed Belinda Hall, a reference to a woman enslaved by the family of Isaac Royall, whose fortune was used to help establish a law professorship at Harvard.
The goal of the occupation is to create an Office of Diversity and Inclusion, where students and staff can come together to “combat our school’s systemic racism and exclusion,” says the group, which also hosts events and lectures in the space.
“That space has been very personal, and people have come into that space being very candid,” said Titilayo Rasaki, a second-year law student and one of the group’s members. “The fact that it was being illegally recorded was a violation of our movement and what we expect in the space.”
It’s against state law to surreptitiously record a person’s conversations.
The group members said they do not know who may have hidden the recorder beneath the table. But they believe it was put there specifically “to surveil our movement.”
They discovered the device — a Sony-model digital voice recorder — on Monday, according to members of the group. They did not say whether there were recordings on the device, or whether they had listened to its contents.
Law school officials said Friday that they have referred the matter to the Harvard University Police Department. The incident is under investigation.
“Our mission as an institution of higher learning depends on protecting and promoting the free exchange of ideas in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. We deeply prize those values,” said law school spokesman Robb London in a prepared statement. “The Law School administration is troubled by an allegation that anyone in our community would attempt to surreptitiously record anyone else’s conversation.”
London said the school only learned about the allegations Friday, after the Reclaim Harvard Law School group sent out a press release.
Rasaki said that since the recorder was discovered, members of the group and outside visitors have felt on edge, and have been hesitant to continue having personal conversations of a sensitive nature at the hall.
Members of the group plan to do a “sweep” of the hall to look for any additional devices, she said.
“This was a safe space for us to have candid conversation, where people could be honest with each other and figure out a way to move forward,” said Rasaki. “It has had a chilling effect on the purpose of why we took over the space in the first place.”
The discovery of the recording device comes as the law school is grappling with complaints about its handling of issues of diversity.
In November, someone placed strips of black tape over portraits of prominent black law school professors displayed in the school’s Wasserstein Hall. Harvard police had at first said they were treating the incident as a hate crime. In January, they closed the case, saying that it could not be determined who was responsible for placing the tape.
Last month, following student protests, the Harvard Corporation accepted a request to change the law school’s controversial emblem, which depicts three sheaves of wheat inside a blue-and-crimson shield. The elements of the symbol were drawn from a slave-holding family’s crest.Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.