Of all the methods of control and surveillance conjured by George Orwell for his dystopian novel 1984, the use of children as spies is one of the most disturbing. As with so many of the measures and actions depicted in Orwell’s fictional work, however, the use of child snitches has today become an eerie reality; fostered, not surprisingly, by the fear according to which governments and government-like institutions such as schools now seek to control the population.
Today, it is fear of COVID that is transforming students into Snitches for the State.
In seeking to ensure students on campus and off abide by rigid COVID safety protocols that essentially forbid the broad range of activities in which college students traditionally have engaged, universities are strongly urging (if not requiring) students to report other students for violations of COVID safety protocols. Yale University even established a “tip line” for individuals to file confidential reports against their fellow students.
Offending acts need not occur in the classroom or anywhere on campus to qualify as reportable infractions. Students at schools such as Cornell and New York University have been suspended for allegedly participating in social events hosted off-campus after being the target of other students’ snitching.
For example, at NYU a student was caught in a video recorded by another student at an outdoor, rooftop party that apparently was in accord with New York City’s rigid social gathering rules. The student, who claims he maintained what he believed to be safe distances while in attendance, was only aware of his grave mistake after receiving an email from school officials excoriating him for “threatening the health and safety of the NYU community.” Notwithstanding that the classes in which he was enrolled were online, he was quickly suspended indefinitely.
It is a scenario playing out across America in this season of snitching. Students are at a private gathering off campus. Someone takes a video and perhaps innocently posts it to social media. The video is reported to the authorities by other students who view it. Then, before the accused students are even notified of their supposed violations, much less given a chance to explain themselves, they are booted from campus.
Pitched as a “public health and safety” measure -- the favored excuse for dubious government acts in the modern era -- the true motives are best encapsulated in a demand letter from Cornell’s student spy ring. This edict directs that the “compliance of every student” [emphasis added] is required, and rule-breakers should be held accountable for their actions.
Just as in Orwell’s fictional world, however, at its core this is all about control; control that extends beyond the parameters of the school itself to encompass the students’ activities in all aspects of their lives, including those having nothing whatsoever to do with the educational process or their fellow students.
While it makes sense that students, when on campus, adhere to reasonable safety protocols, the measures now being enforced, including off-campus activities that are perfectly legal under state and local ordinances, crosses the line from reasonable to despotic. Heretofore expected elements of due process and common sense have been cast aside and replaced with draconian and nonsensical measures, enforced according to rigid rules and punishment, up to and including kicking students out of school and refusing to refund tuition and fees already paid to the school.
History shows us that control measures like those now being implemented by colleges and universities such as Cornell, NYU, Yale, and many others, which ostensibly are focused on a particular problem – here, COVID – do not disappear once the problem goes away. Rather, the measures implemented in time of “crisis” become the norm – the floor rather than the ceiling according to which additional control mechanisms are justified.
It would behoove students (and their parents) considering whether to enter or remain in such institutions, to read 1984 to gain a sense for the environment into which they are in or seek to enter. Unfortunately, the sense of fear or unease that such a read would “trigger” make it unlikely many of those students could bear to read beyond the first few pages.
The Season of the Snitch is now upon us.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s 7 District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003 and was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986 to 1990. He now serves as President of the Law Enforcement Education Foundation based in Atlanta, Georgia.