University of Maryland at College Park sophomore Chaz Busuttil walked into his Sept. 8 Literature for Children and Youth class a little lighter in the backpack than many of his fellow students. Money was tight for Busuttil that semester, so he had decided to save a few bucks by not purchasing the required textbooks for the course.

During that day’s lecture, Busuttil learned that Professor Ruth Heidelbach planned to subtract points from students who had failed to bring their textbooks to class. As Heidelbach descended from the lectern and began walking around the classroom to check for books, Busuttil frantically scanned the room for help. He beseeched fellow student Elizabeth Raiford, who agreed to pass her books to Busuttil so he could get credit. After Heidelbach checked him off, Busuttil quickly returned the books to Raiford.

Heidelbach had a surprise for Busuttil after the next class. “Last week, you misrepresented yourself on an assignment in class,” Heidelbach told him point blank. Busuttil was puzzled. If the professor had known that he had borrowed the books, why had she given him credit for the assignment? When Busuttil mounted a defense, he says, Heidelbach revealed her crucial piece of evidence: “Don’t try to deny it. We have the whole thing on tape.”

On Dec. 10, Busuttil pleaded guilty to the Student Honor Council and received a grade of XF— a cheater’s flunk—on his academic record. Busuttil has appealed the ruling and now threatens a federal court lawsuit, arguing that the university disciplinary process is obsolete in the age of cameras in the classroom. He contends the absence of a university policy about videotaped lectures makes Heidelbach’s use of evidence against him disputable.

In 1991, the University of Maryland at College Park unveiled the latest tool in educational innovation: high-tech classrooms equipped with video cameras. Videotaped lectures would enable professors to examine and improve their teaching techniques.

Busuttil’s Literature for Children and Youth class was held in one of these high-tech “teaching theaters.” At the beginning of the semester, Heidelbach had pointed out the video cameras to her students and told them she’d be taping the class for her own edification.

Such procedures conform with the overall notion of how videotaping should be used in College Park classrooms. But the University of Maryland has not set ground rules on applications beyond professional development. Busuttil believes this ambiguity gives professors carte blanche to abuse students’ rights.

When Heidelbach reviewed the tape from Sept. 8, Busuttil believes, she was looking at more than just ways to improve her elocution. Moments before he borrowed the books from Raiford, Busuttil had loudly referred to the professor as a “dyke” to a fellow student. Busuttil maintains that it was the epithet—not the book exchange—that provoked Heidelbach’s case against him. Heidelbach did not respond to messages asking for comment on the case.

Some universities might seek disciplinary action for such an incident, but the XF in Busuttil’s transcript isn’t for being hateful, intolerant, or even simply a boor. It’s for cheating. The three-minute video clip Heidelbach handed over for review to the university honor committee starts moments before the book passing, right when Busuttil utters the slur.

Not that Busuttil would know for sure, anyway. Despite repeated requests to view the full tape, Heidelbach and the Student Honor Council wouldn’t let Busuttil see for himself.

Busuttil suspects that Heidelbach pursued unusually strict punishment as retribution for the remark. He notes that Heidelbach recommended not only that Busuttil receive an automatic failure for her course, but also asked that Busuttil not receive his teacher’s certificate. Yet Heidelbach also suggested that Raiford—Busuttil’s book-swapping accomplice—get off without punishment, even though the university honor code prescribes the same fate for cheaters and those who aid and abet them.

In the end, the Student Honor Council disciplined him on the basis of what it saw, not what it heard, committee members say. “The board focused on the clip,” says Amy Ginther, assistant director of student discipline for academic integrity for the university, even though Busuttil admitted to the name-calling as well.

The university defends Heidelbach’s refusal to hand over a copy of the tape to Busuttil. It considers videotaped lectures the intellectual property of a professor, so “video taken by a professor is going to belong to a professor,” says University of Maryland General Counsel Susan Bayly.

Since his particular case didn’t pass muster with the honor council, Busuttil has decided to pursue his case outside academia. And he cites a contemporary precedent as his defense. “It’s like with Linda Tripp—you can’t tape someone without their consent,” Busuttil says.

Maryland law—as Tripp’s shenanigans have now made famous—forbids taping conversations without a participant’s knowledge. But because Heidelbach told the class about the cameras, Busuttil’s argument stands on shaky ground. The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has declined Busuttil’s case.

University officials dispute Busuttil’s scenario. “It’s not like the teacher’s hiding a camera in a shoebox,” says Bayly.

Though fellow students admit that Busuttil broke the university honor code, they agree with him over the broader issues concerning videotape use. “What Chaz did was wrong. There’s no two ways about it,” says Greg Schaffer, former president of the university chapter of the ACLU. Yet Schaffer points out that there might be a more important issue at stake: student privacy. “The constitution doesn’t end at University Boulevard,” he says.

“There ought to be rules saying, ‘We’re using it for purposes A, B, and C, and not for any other purpose,’” says local privacy consultant Bob Gellman. “If you don’t have rules, you don’t know what’s appropriate,” he adds.

University of Maryland administrators, however, dismiss any paranoia about Big Brother in College Park classrooms. “There’s no real need for a policy, other than telling the students this is being done,” argues Bayly.

Busuttil is now threatening to file a lawsuit in federal court challenging the use of the videotape to indict him. Busuttil may not have gotten an A in Literature for Children and Youth, but he hopes to be a quick study in constitutional law. And for the rest of his time at the University of Maryland, he’ll stay out of the camera’s focus.CP