Protesters march on campus at Stony Brook University earlier this...

Protesters march on campus at Stony Brook University earlier this month. Credit: James Carbone

As Stony Brook University prepared for graduation ceremonies Friday, it returned the last of 17 cellphones it seized from pro-Palestinian protesters who were arrested two weeks ago.

Namal Fiaz, the president of the Stony Brook University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine and one of the main organizers of the protest May 1, said she received her phone Thursday afternoon. Another 16 phones were returned on Monday to some of the 29 protesters arrested.

The seizing of the phones “is meant to repress the student movement for Palestine,” Fiaz said. “My phone was the only one held … longer than everyone else's. I've been vocal about Palestinian liberation on campus for months.”

The university is “hoping they can intimidate us into submission,” she added. “It's not going to work.”

Stony Brook officials have said they permit free speech on campus and made the arrests to maintain order and safety. They have not directly commented on any of the students' cases or the confiscation of the phones.

While Stony Brook declined to comment Thursday, it said last week that its campus police are “an accredited law enforcement agency” that “works in close consultation with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. As in all cases no evidence that is seized is searched without the appropriate steps including the application for and receipt of a search warrant where applicable.”

Stony Brook referred questions on the arrests to the Suffolk district attorney's office, which had no comment Thursday.

Fiaz was charged with disorderly conduct like the other protesters, but had an added charge of trespassing. She was suspended by school officials around 5 p.m. on May 1 during the protest but remained on campus until the arrests around midnight.

A senior, she was scheduled to graduate Friday, but said the university is not permitting her to take part in the graduation ceremony. Stony Brook said four other seniors and one graduate student who were arrested and placed on interim suspension submitted requests to attend graduation and all were approved. They are required to follow the university’s Code of Student Responsibility at the event, Stony Brook said. 

Meanwhile, New York State Police and Suffolk County police said Thursday they played no role in the seizing and retaining of the cellphones.

Brittany Burton, public information officer for the New York State Police, said that “we did not confiscate any evidence or cellphones, nor did we apply for a search warrant.”

The Suffolk County Police Department said it was also not involved with the arrests or confiscation of the phones.

The lead entity involved in the arrests was the Stony Brook University campus police. An attorney for the protesters, Peter Brill, said if police did not have a search warrant to keep the phones, it would violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. 

The university has declined to state whether campus police had a warrant.

Brill, who is working on the case pro bono for the New York Civil Liberties Union, contended the seizure of the phones was a case of overzealous law enforcement working to intimidate leftist student protesters and not following legal procedures.

“I think that this is an overblown level of paranoia on the part of certain aspects of law enforcement involving fear of left-wing organizing,” he said.

Brian Higgins, a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired chief of the Bergen County Police Department in New Jersey, said if police seized and kept the phones without a warrant, it would generally be legally problematic.

“Unless they had a warrant for it or some other justification, I don’t know how they could do that,” Higgins said. “It doesn’t seem like normal investigative” procedure.

If police confiscate personal items during an arrest, generally they must be returned after the person is released from custody, legal experts have told Newsday, unless deemed evidence in a criminal case or proceeds of a crime. The protesters were charged with disorderly conduct, which is a noncriminal offense.

The commencement ceremony starts at 11 a.m. Friday at Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium.

Stony Brook President Maurie McInnis, who narrowly won a censure vote by the Faculty Senate on Monday for her handling of the protests, has denied the university is seeking to squelch free speech.

In a statement last week, the university said: “We fully stand by the actions we took before, during and after the events that transpired the evening of May 1 and have clearly and steadfastly stated from the beginning our belief that free speech and the right to protest are bedrock principles of Stony Brook University.”

As Stony Brook University prepared for graduation ceremonies Friday, it returned the last of 17 cellphones it seized from pro-Palestinian protesters who were arrested two weeks ago.

Namal Fiaz, the president of the Stony Brook University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine and one of the main organizers of the protest May 1, said she received her phone Thursday afternoon. Another 16 phones were returned on Monday to some of the 29 protesters arrested.

The seizing of the phones “is meant to repress the student movement for Palestine,” Fiaz said. “My phone was the only one held … longer than everyone else's. I've been vocal about Palestinian liberation on campus for months.”

The university is “hoping they can intimidate us into submission,” she added. “It's not going to work.”

Stony Brook officials have said they permit free speech on campus and made the arrests to maintain order and safety. They have not directly commented on any of the students' cases or the confiscation of the phones.

While Stony Brook declined to comment Thursday, it said last week that its campus police are “an accredited law enforcement agency” that “works in close consultation with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. As in all cases no evidence that is seized is searched without the appropriate steps including the application for and receipt of a search warrant where applicable.”

Stony Brook referred questions on the arrests to the Suffolk district attorney's office, which had no comment Thursday.

Fiaz was charged with disorderly conduct like the other protesters, but had an added charge of trespassing. She was suspended by school officials around 5 p.m. on May 1 during the protest but remained on campus until the arrests around midnight.

A senior, she was scheduled to graduate Friday, but said the university is not permitting her to take part in the graduation ceremony. Stony Brook said four other seniors and one graduate student who were arrested and placed on interim suspension submitted requests to attend graduation and all were approved. They are required to follow the university’s Code of Student Responsibility at the event, Stony Brook said. 

Meanwhile, New York State Police and Suffolk County police said Thursday they played no role in the seizing and retaining of the cellphones.

Brittany Burton, public information officer for the New York State Police, said that “we did not confiscate any evidence or cellphones, nor did we apply for a search warrant.”

The Suffolk County Police Department said it was also not involved with the arrests or confiscation of the phones.

The lead entity involved in the arrests was the Stony Brook University campus police. An attorney for the protesters, Peter Brill, said if police did not have a search warrant to keep the phones, it would violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. 

The university has declined to state whether campus police had a warrant.

Brill, who is working on the case pro bono for the New York Civil Liberties Union, contended the seizure of the phones was a case of overzealous law enforcement working to intimidate leftist student protesters and not following legal procedures.

“I think that this is an overblown level of paranoia on the part of certain aspects of law enforcement involving fear of left-wing organizing,” he said.

Brian Higgins, a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired chief of the Bergen County Police Department in New Jersey, said if police seized and kept the phones without a warrant, it would generally be legally problematic.

“Unless they had a warrant for it or some other justification, I don’t know how they could do that,” Higgins said. “It doesn’t seem like normal investigative” procedure.

If police confiscate personal items during an arrest, generally they must be returned after the person is released from custody, legal experts have told Newsday, unless deemed evidence in a criminal case or proceeds of a crime. The protesters were charged with disorderly conduct, which is a noncriminal offense.

The commencement ceremony starts at 11 a.m. Friday at Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium.

Stony Brook President Maurie McInnis, who narrowly won a censure vote by the Faculty Senate on Monday for her handling of the protests, has denied the university is seeking to squelch free speech.

In a statement last week, the university said: “We fully stand by the actions we took before, during and after the events that transpired the evening of May 1 and have clearly and steadfastly stated from the beginning our belief that free speech and the right to protest are bedrock principles of Stony Brook University.”

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