Colleges Criticized for Response to Offensive Electronic Speech

By Thomas J. DeLoughry
The Chronicle of Higher Education
December 1, 1995

[use Restricted to Virginia Tech Students under Fair Use guidelines until formal copyright clearance has been received from TCHE]

Colleges and universities from new York to California continue to take heat for how their students behave on the Internet, and for the ways in which the institutions respond.

E-mail from critics across the country poured into Cornell University last week after officials there decided not to charge four freshmen with violating the campus code of conduct. The students had written a misogynistic note that was widely circulated on line. It was called "Top 75 reasons why women (bitches) should not have freedom of speech."

The message suggested that women should be silenced to keep them from crying rape or saying No to sex; made several references to forcing women to perform oral sex; and took aim at affirmative action, Oprah Winfrey, and feminists.

Its circulation triggered immediate, angry responses from Internet users across the country, thousands of whom appealed to Cornell through e-mail and telephone calls to discipline the four men (The Chronicle, November 24).

But university officials said the statements did not violate Cornell's computer-use or harassment policies, because the authors themselves had shared their note only with a small number of friends, who were not offended by it.

Posting at Virginia Tech

The Cornell decision came several weeks after Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University penalized a student for posting a note on the World-Wide Web page of a gay organization suggesting that gay men be castrated and killed. The university, which has not revealed the student's name or the punishment levied, was accused by many observers of infringing upon the student's First Amendment rights.

The California Institute of Technology, meanwhile, has come under fire from critics who charge that the expulsion of a graduate student for harassing his former girlfriend was based on e-mail that may have been forged to appear as if it had come from him. Caltech officials said the e-mail constituted a small portion of the evidence against the student and had not been the deciding factor in the case.

Controversy is also certain to reemerge in Michigan, where the federal government last week appealed a judge's dismissal of its case against a former University of Michigan student charged with using the Internet to transmit threats.

Prosecution in Michigan

The defendant, Jake Baker, was prosecuted on the basis of a rape-and-torture fantasy that he had posted on the Internet, and e-mail messages about abducting and raping a female classmate that he had exchanged with a correspondent in Canada. He was jailed for nearly a month before a judge decided in June that he was guilty only of creating "a rather savage and tasteless piece of fiction."

College administrators say the four cases are high-profile examples of the kind of on-line behavior that is becoming common on their campuses. Some say that offensive remarks are more common on computer networks because offenders are encouraged by the impersonal nature of the medium, and that recipients are often more upset by having the distasteful messages in their personal mailboxes than if the words were spoken on a campus quadrangle.

Ban on Harassment

In the Cornell case, the university's judicial administrator was responsible for determining whether the four students--Evan Camps, Rikus Linschoten, Pat Sicher, and Brian Waldman--could be charged under the institution's conduct code. The code does not ban hate speech, but it does forbid sexual harassment and includes rules governing the use of computer systems.

Cornell's judicial administrator, Barbara L. Krause, decided that the four men could not be charged with harassment because they had not directed their message at anyone they believed would be harassed by it. She also determined that they had not violated computer policies prohibiting students from tying up machines by transmitting a note all over the world. She found that the four men had shared their message with fewer than 20 friends, and that people who were offended by it had been primarily responsible for duplicating it and sharing it with others.

The four students apologized for their message in a letter to The Cornell Daily Sun and agreed to apologize in person to Cornell administrators. Each also agreed to perform 50 hours of community service and to attend a rape-awareness program sponsored by the university's heath center. They could not be reached for comment last week.

Criticism From 2 Sides

Criticism of Ms. Krause's decision came last week from free-speech advocates as well as from feminists concerned about Cornell's failure to punish the four freshmen for offending women and for creating what the critics believe is a hostile environment for women.

Harvey Silverglate, a Boston lawyer familiar with free-speech cases on college campuses, described Cornell's decision as "a plea bargain," in which the four students escaped punishment by agreeing to community service and "re-education."

He criticized university officials for failing to embrace the First Amendment and for basing their decision not to discipline the students on the fact that the four men had sent the message only to a small number of friends. "That's a very interesting line to draw between protected and unprotected speech," he said. "The time when it is most important to protect speech is when it is outrageous, provocative, annoying, and even hostile."

Others accepted Cornell's decision but suggested that the incident pointed up the need for further discussions on the campus.

'Not Really Apologetic'

Anjana Samant, a Cornell junior who is co-president of a student group called the Feminist Majority, and administrators were more concerned with the university's image and free-speech principles than with the content of the e-mail that the four students had written.

"To me, it's disappointing that this has been the administration's focus, not the fact that what they did was wrong," she said. "I have met very few people who are satisfied with this at all. We're concerned that the students are not really apologetic."

Kathryn March, an associate professor of anthropology and women's studies, who brought the message to the attention of computer administrators, said she agreed with Cornell's decision that the four men had not violated the university's conduct code. But she said the case indicated the need for a debate over whether electronic mail should be protected in the same way that other speech is protected on campus.

The ability to take a piece of private e-mail and transmit it in seconds to thousands of people sets the new medium apart from others and raises the question of whether users can assume the level of privacy that they intend, Ms. March said.

The university also should debate whether it should extend free-speech rights to students who are using university-owned computers and are attaching Cornell's name to everything sent from those computers, she said.

Limits in Place

Limits on what students can do on university-owned computers are already in place on other campuses, including Virginia Tech, where they played a prominent role in the case of the student who sent a threatening note to a gay organization.

Cathryn T. Goree, the university's dean of students , said the student would not have been disciplined if he had used an e-mail account other than the one at Virginia Tech.

Administrators judged the posting to be "threatening," she said, but did not impose harsher penalties, because it had been directed at an organization rather than an individual.

A barrage of e-mail from people on both sides of the free-speech debate did not change her mind, she added. "Our policy comes down to the fact that your right to free speech stops when you associate the name of the university with it."

Ms. Goree acknowledged that differences among policies at Virginia Tech, Cornell, and other institutions would continue to confuse Internet users who want to know what is appropriate conduct on the network. The only solution, she said, is to determine the policy of the university from which the offensive note was sent.

Last updated 95/12/04
Copyright The Chronicle for Higher Education, December 1, 1995