Atheist Student Questioned By Police For Being an Atheist

This is a guest post by Harrison Hopkins, president and founder of the Secular Student Alliance at Presbyterian College in South Carolina, also known for stopping the graduation prayer at his high school.

A week and a half ago during our Spring Break, my school, Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC, was one of several schools in the immediate area to receive “threatening letters” from an anonymous source. While the specifics of these letters have yet to be released to the public, the responses from faculty, staff, and the local police seem consistent with those of generic bomb threats. More on that can be read on WYFF4 and WSPA.

The Sunday before classes resumed, I made a post on Facebook in response to seeing several people express their worry over returning to school. In it, I outlined three points that made it seem, to me at least, that the threats were not as serious as people thought.

The next morning as I head to class my dad sends me a text, “Call me ASAP.” I do, only to find out that the police had been at our house looking for me. Two hours later they succeed and are waiting outside of my New Testament class. We talk, and agree that after I get my sandwich (there were only thirty minutes left in the meal period), I would come to the police station and allow them to question me.

The questioning was… interesting, to say the least. They started by asking why I felt it was not as big of a deal and from there went on to ask if I could give them names of five people that would be potentially capable of doing something like this. When I refused several times, the method changed to one person that I felt would be completely incapable of doing this. That would be everyone, so I again refused.

After this, they started asking about my involvement on campus. My two biggest involvements are with Secular Student Alliance at Presbyterian College and the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, so naturally they had to ask about those. Specifically how many members each group had, if I could give the names of any members, and fun questions as well, such as “Don’t you think it’s weird that as an atheist you go to Presbyterian College?” and “Are you a… homosexual?”

As I was being questioned, I noticed a paper that was sticking out of the stack that was on the table. It was upside down and a bit away, but it was obviously an email… the email that was sent to the sheriff as a tip. I was finally able to make out what it said.

“Just a thought, but have you looked into the members of the freedom of religion group at Presbyterian college?”

After working this out, I asked about it, which launched one of the questioners into an explanation that it wasn’t because of my beliefs (or lack thereof) that I was being questioned, but simply because they were following up every single tip they could. That would be completely understandable, were it not for the fact that the tip only came in because I am an atheist, or that the questioner seemed to insinuate that I was a part of some anarchist front, asking if I had any harsh feeling against the government, the police, or any of the local schools, and just what my political standings are.

They would not let me read the email itself, but did let me know that it seemed to be written by someone older and conservative who knew me before I arrived at PC, specifically through my complaints against school prayer in high school. In two weeks, I plan on filing a Freedom of Information Act request to see the email itself.

As of now, I’m a bit angry. To think that someone would feel that we would be capable or even have some sort of connection to the letters simply because of our atheism? This is the first time that I have experienced this sort of discrimination on this scale. I’m angry about this, but I also see it as just further reason to keep pushing forward, to help dispel these misconceptions that so many people tend to hold.

Atheist Student Questioned By Police For Being an Atheist
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21 thoughts on “Atheist Student Questioned By Police For Being an Atheist

  1. 1

    It looks like you were the victim of a relatively mild form of “SWATting.” In the extreme form, several fake 911 calls, their origin disguised by caller ID spoofing, report that the victim’s residence contains a heavily armed terrorist cell that is about to do something atrocious. If the perpetrator can break into the victim’s computer, the cops will find a heady mixture of Islamofacist propaganda, bomb recipes and kiddie porn, plus the names and social security numbers (which aren’t secret) of a few dozen government officials. By the time the victim proves his innocence (odd, how the burden of proof reverses if you yell “NATIONAL SECURITY” loud enough), he’s bankrupt, on several Lists, and likely unemployable because of his criminal record. An arrest record, you see, never goes away even if you are never convicted, or even charged.

  2. 4

    I heartily second machintelligence’s sound advice. It is never in your interest to make any statement to the police. Get over the need to explain or justify yourself, or even just provide an alibi. If there is no evidence against you (possibly because you didn’t do anything), talking to the police can only provide some that they now lack. It can provide them with a pretext to get a search warrant, which may turn up your unrelated stash (or a planted stash). You can confirm your own whereabouts someplace that seems innocent to you, but may fit with the police’s theory of the crime. These are just a couple of the many bad things that can result from talking to police.

    Here’s that youtube – it’s invaluable.

  3. 6

    The most interesting thing about speaking to the police is that it can NEVER help you, only harm you. As noted in your Miranda rights, anything you say can and will be used against you. According to various lawyers, YouTube resources and articles, anything you say in your favor cannot be repeated by the police as testimony, and if they do the judge is obligated to dismiss it as hearsay.

    It seems that the only rational things to say when being questioned by the police are 1) I want a lawyer, or 2) I invoke my 5th amendment right not o speak.

  4. 7

    I get along just fine with police officers unless they are requesting acces to my residence or property or asking questions I don’t want to answer. Of course as a bog standard privileged white guy I get no flack for this. Most of my interactions have been anywhere from cordial to friendly. Of course YMMV^3.

  5. 8

    Being an atheist from India, my experience has not always been so bad. Although, a few friends in my college started to question me when i made it public that i was an atheist. But, there were not any queries that i couldn’t answer. I even turned a few of my religious friends to my side. The point is, how can anyone think that we atheists are anarchists, communists or are always plotting against the government. Only the simple minded and uneducated can think like that.

  6. 11

    It’s not at all unusual for an atheist to attend a religiously-affiliated university. I became an atheist while attending a Christian university, and then transferred to another one.

    Second everything that has been said about not talking to the police, including watching the Youtube video on it– if it’s the one I’m thinking of, which is a presentation on the subject by a lawyer whose name I don’t recall.

  7. 12

    Does anyone else find it ironic that the person who tipped the police off to Harrison is probably closer in psychological profile to the actual person who sent out the fake bomb threats?

  8. 15

    Talking to the cops is a crap shoot.

    Clamming up and refusing to answer any questions is sometimes seen a being belligerent, which often annoys cops, which can lead to charges for the local equivalent of disorderly conduct, with non-violent resisting arrest added as a courtesy.

    Talking can sometimes avoid that “minor annoyance”, but at the risk of more serious charges and abuses.

    It’s a shame we live in a country where innocent people need to weigh the pros and cons of talking to police.

    All police need to wear cameras that are active for all transactions with the public. Before any questions are asked, police should be required to ask the person to start their own recording device, and offer one if the person doesn’t have one of their own. That way there will be a minimum of two recordings from two different perspectives of all interactions.

  9. 16

    Don’t you think it’s weird for an atheist to send their child to Catholic elementary?

    A: Not if the Catholic school ironically teaches my child more about questioning authority than the public schools (and those are the only two options.)

  10. 17

    As a Uk resident, I find that in general the police are not to be trusted. If you operate any kind of road vehicle then they are the enemy. However, when I had my motorcycle stolen, I felt that the police did everything possible to identify the culprits, so as a victim of crime, I felt that they were on my side. The bike was recovered in a damaged state, and I repaired it myself, but the perpetrators were never caught.

    Regarding this case, surely they must be aware that atheist terrorists are as rare as hen’s teeth. Religious terrorists, on the other hand, are about as rare as Honda C50s

  11. 18

    I’m of two minds with dealing with cops. On the one hand most of them (well, most of them in most places) are sincerely trying to help and protect people. If the officers were not doing do diligence and following every asinine tip they wouldn’t be doing there job.

    On the other hand, my experience with police officers, even good-natured ones, is that the badge and uniform gives them significant privilege. They seem to feel insulated from decent or even rational behavior, plus often receive training in how to control and manipulate people. It sounds like Greta’s interrogation reflected that- they didn’t appear to be trying to vette the authenticity of the tip, but trying to see if any minority groups on campus that Greta was a part of would feel inclined to plant bombs.

    And no, this doesn’t happen for everyone. The reason Greta was named stemmed from her non-mainstream opinions, and police will notoriously give “good citizens” (well dressed, white, outspokenly religious and Christian) a pass or assume they’re not at fault.

  12. 19

    Cops and defense attorneys don’t have much common ground.
    One thing they do agree on is being questioned by the police.
    What’s their advice?

    “Don’t do it.”
    Don’t agree to be searched.
    Don’t answer questions other than your name and address.
    Don’t let them in the door without a warrant.
    Above all, don’t sign anything.

    If the police want to question you don’t say a word unless you have a lawyer. That Miranda warning “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a Court of Law” is absolutely 100% correct.

  13. 21

    they yank 1 person from school

    Not exactly “yanked”, since Harrison was able to buy a sandwich and make his/her own way to the police station.

    And why are you so confident that only one student out of all the schools was questioned?

    From what Harrison has written, the main thing I would criticise these cops for is being absolutely appalling at protecting the identities of their informants. I would be reluctant to talk to them about anything for fear that the entire town would know that I had.

    But we do want cops to investigate bomb threats, don’t we?

    If there’s someone to get pissed off at it’s the person who provided the tip. But we don’t know whether they provided it out of malice or well-intentioned ignorance.

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