Universities grapple with free speech online

Monday, March 16, 1998

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — University of Maine sophomore Casey Belanger sat down at the computer in his dorm room and typed a nasty, threatening message to a fellow student he had never met.

“I’m gonna shoot you in the back of the (expletive) head if I ever see your faggot ass,” he wrote last fall, inadvertently sending it to campus computer bulletin boards.

A week later, the attorney general’s office slapped the 19-year-old Caribou student with a hate crime lawsuit, accusing him of violating the civil rights of homosexuals.

“I don’t even know the guy,” said Belanger, a student on the campus in Orono, 2½ hours north of Portland. “I was just mouthing off.”

On the Internet and through e-mail, threats and offensive jokes fly through cyberspace between anonymous users, often without repercussions. But not on college and university computer networks.

“Universities are concerned about libel and slander,” said Peter Burke, an attorney in the corporate technology practice group at Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy, an Atlanta and Washington law firm. “By operating e-mail systems, does the university become responsible for what gets posted there?”

In some cases, Burke said, universities and colleges are walking the tightrope between censorship and free speech.

At Bates College, a student signed onto the computer network on the Lewiston campus last year and typed an obscenity-laced message saying she hated white people.

The college condemned the message, calling it “offensive and divisive,” and the Hate Crimes and Bias Committee responded with a memo: “This incident has brought to our attention the fact that students have previously posted sexist, racist, homophobic and similarly offensive language. We view this as utterly inappropriate in any context.”

But what some may say is offensive, others argue is free speech, Burke said. “Do we have people deciding what ideas are good or bad? Don’t say that, it might offend somebody? We’d rather you speak good ideas so everyone is happy?” he said.

At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., four freshmen sent a derogatory “joke” about women to their friends through e-mail. The message was sent in 1995 to 20 of the students’ friends, who then passed it along to countless Internet e-mail addresses, prompting angry responses from across the country.

Cornell considered disciplining the four; instead they were required to attend rape awareness classes.

At the University of North Carolina, officials closed an e-mail account belonging to a former student after a racist message from that account was posted on at least 10 Internet news groups. Anyone reading the “joke” about “Why all blacks should go back to Africa” could see that the posting originated at the university.

And at Virginia Tech, a student was punished for posting a note on the web page of a gay organization that suggested gay men be castrated and killed.

The incidents are forcing educators to define how computers should be used, and more colleges are looking into computer-use policies, said David Merkowitz, a spokesman for the American Council on Education.

“Some universities are overreacting. They’re treating electronic mail differently than they would treat communications using a pen and paper,” said Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based online civil-liberties organization.

At America Online, its 10 million subscribers must agree to the terms of service: No obscenities, no threatening, no harassing.

If they fail to comply, they lose their account, and in some instances law enforcement is alerted. AOL learns about violations mainly through other members, but it does not reprimand users for the quality of their e-mail jokes, nor does it monitor them.

“There is an infinite amount of information and communication within AOL community. There is no way to monitor each and every word, nor should we,” said AOL spokeswoman Trish Primrose.

On the other hand, private corporations are very concerned about e-mail content, Steinhardt said, and company e-mail is probably more closely monitored than at colleges and universities.

“Private companies pretty much have a carte blanche to control the use of their own resources,” he said. But public universities cannot punish students for what they say on the campus computer network, unless the mail constitutes a violation of the law, like the Belanger case.

The incident at the University of Maine started when Belanger said he “disliked fags” on his “resume” on a student bulletin board. That prompted a barrage of anonymous e-mail, he said.

He sent the threatening message to the person he thought was sending the anonymous messages. But his message ended up going to 10 other students as well as the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual public conference folder and three other computer folders.

Soon after, students alerted campus security, who then forwarded the matter to police and the attorney general’s office. “It all just got blown out of proportion,” Belanger said.

Belanger was ordered to serve 30 hours of community service by the university, which suspended his computer account. The state waived a $5,000 fine and had Belanger sign an injunction promising he would not harass or threaten others.

Belanger said he would never have said in-person what he wrote hidden behind his screen name. “It was just a spur of the moment thing. Given the opportunity, I would definitely go back and reword it.”

Maine Attorney General Andrew Ketterer said there’s an easy way to know when certain speech is inappropriate, and possibly illegal:

No one should be placed in fear or scared by a message they receive through their computer.

“I think that people may say, ‘Hey, I got a First Amendment right to say whatever I want.’ But what they’ve got to realize it does not include the right to threaten,” he said.