Robert E. Pontbriand, a professor of history at UMass-Dartmouth, said that the student was a member of his course on fascism and totalitarianism. About two months ago, the student used an interlibrary loan to obtain the authoritative version of the Little Red Book for a research paper on Mao, Pontbriand said.
The student was subsequently visited by a person or persons who identified themselves as agents of the Department of Homeland Security. He also told Pontbriand that he had been singled out because of his request for the Little Red Book, Pontbriand said.
“Apparently, he was seeking out that particular book, the authorized version, and somehow he triggered the visitation,” Pontbriand said, adding that the student also indicated that there may have been other people who experienced similar investigations.
Pontbriand declined to comment further on the specifics of the incident in order to protect the student’s anonymity, who, according to Pontbriand, has chosen not to identify himself publicly.
A representative from the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
But Harvard Law School Clinical Professor of Law John G. Palfrey ’94 said that he doubts that a request for the Little Red Book alone could have prompted a visit from government officials.
“That seems extremely unlikely to me to have happened absent other circumstances,” Palfrey said.
He suggested that the student may have been under surveillance for another reason. Palfrey said he doubts that the Department of Homeland Security monitors general interlibrary loans, although he said that access to Americans’ personal information is easier today than it has been in the past.
Folger Fund Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History Andrew D. Gordon ’74 wrote in an e-mail that he does not know of any comparable cases involving students at Harvard or elsewhere.
“[I] have not heard colleagues express concern that their reading habits or class assignment habits are leading to state scrutiny,” he wrote.
The story of the UMass-Dartmouth student comes at the same time as President Bush’s admission that he authorized a program of secret surveillance and the Senate struggle over the renewal of the Patriot Act because of concerns about civil liberties violations.
Pontbriand and Associate Professor of History Brian G. Williams at UMass-Dartmouth spoke to The Standard-Times (a local Massachusetts newspaper) about the incident, but Williams did not respond to telephone or e-mail requests for comment yesterday. Williams told The Standard-Times that the incident made him reconsider his plans to teach a course focusing on terrorism.
Harvard professors found the incident disturbing.
“My personal reaction is that this is a sad but perhaps predictable result of the way the war on terrorism is being pursued domestically,” Gordon said.
—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at email@example.com.