Free to be offensive

April 12, 1996

After months of panic over university crackdowns and government restrictions, campus users of computer networks have received some reassurance from top United States legal experts that their fears may be exaggerated.

Administrators have called for controls on potentially offensive material on American university computer networks, while a law being challenged in the courts would punish "indecent" words or pictures on the Internet.

But Net activists and lawyers involved on both sides of the debate told the sixth conference on computers, freedom and privacy that universities and colleges are the least likely places for a confrontation to occur.

"When you're talking about speech issues, it's not only difficult to prosecute, but universities are generally seen as protected areas in which ideas - popular and unpopular - are batted about," said Jonathan Chiel, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice. "The government is going to move very cautiously, if at all, to impose restrictions in that area."

The conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts is an annual gathering of the Net community, law enforcement officials and representatives of the communications and computer industries. This year it was sponsored by the World Wide Web Consortium and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Chiel knows first-hand the difficulties of charging someone at a university with violating criminal or civil laws online. He unsuccessfully prosecuted an MIT student accused last year of distributing millions of dollars worth of copyrighted software by posting it on a bulletin board system where anyone could copy it for free. A federal judge dismissed the charges.

Harvey Silverglate, the defense attorney in the case, said anxiety about restrictions "really is the ultimate of making mountains out of molehills," thanks to existing US laws protecting free expression.

But Georgia State University, the University of South Carolina, Northwestern University, the University of Florida and other schools are censoring student Web sites; the University of Memphis and Virginia Technical Institutes have disciplined students for online speech that authorities considered to be offensive or obscene.

"There's the legal problem and then there's the chilling effect problem," said Seth Finkelstein, director of online outreach for the Justice on Campus Project, which monitors restrictions. The legal problems, too, could worsen if the federal Communications Decency Act survives a court challenge. The act, signed on February 8 by President Clinton, would impose penalties of up to two years in prison and $250,000 in fines for displaying "indecent" or "patently offensive" words or images on the Net. Most people at the conference considered communication on the Net no different from conversations in a dormitory lounge or private room, and protected by the same civil rights.

Greg Jackson, associate provost for information technology at the University of Chicago said that although electronic communication can more easily be infiltrated and distributed, the academic world has little justification for restricting it.

After all, he said, "great universities are predicated on people saying offensive things about each other".

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