Free speech row sparked by Internet usage rulings

December 22, 1995

Free speech guarantees at United States universities and colleges are coming into conflict with demands that students who misuse the Internet be disciplined.

The controversy flared with a decision by Cornell University in New York State not to punish four undergraduates who used the international computer network to distribute copies of a message they called "Top 75 reasons why women should not have freedom of speech". Women's groups and others attacked the ruling.

But the Virginia Polytechnic Institute was equally criticised by free-speech advocates for censuring a student who used the World-Wide Web to call for the castration of gay men.

"It is a no-win situation," said Margie Hodges, legal policy advisor to Cornell's computer division. The Cornell students' manifesto said women should not have free speech because, among other reasons, "If she can't speak, she can't cry rape".

The university's judicial administrator, Barbara Krause, wrote that the four male students sent the list to about 20 friends. From there, however, a copy apparently was sent to others and eventually distributed all over the US and Canada, mainly by people who were offended by its content, university officials found - not by the authors. Cornell's policies emphasise the concept of free speech and "recognise that certain offensive messages may have to be tolerated in a community that values the right of all to speak freely," Krause decided.

At Virginia Polytechnic, administrators declined to say what punishment was given to the student who wrote threats to homosexuals. However, they said their policy was that students' rights to free speech ended when the university's name became associated with offensive messages.

"There are always going to be people on both sides of the issue," Ms Hodges said. "Institutions are going to have to work together and struggle with these questions, although we may have different answers."

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