Princeton University has been forced to back down from an attempt to curb political campaigning on its computer network as it does in its buildings and grounds.
The ban was imposed after someone sent an unsolicited message to about 3,000 Princeton email accounts supporting a faculty member's bid for nomination as a congressional candidate. Princeton said it feared that it would lose its tax-exempt status if it was linked to partisan electioneering. Many schools place limits on the use of facilities such as campus auditoriums for political rallies.
But Ann Beeson of the American Civil Liberties Union called the explanation an absolute smokescreen. She said: "It's only if Princeton says, 'Vote for Bob Dole' that they've got a problem. This was a blanket ban on political speech."
The ACLU argued that the rule could have been interpreted as barring any political speech, even in private email messages. So the university responded that "students, faculty and staff are generally free to communicate their personal views on political candidates using email and the Internet".
Still too vague, civil libertarians complained. The university tried again. "It is not Princeton's policy to prohibit individual members of the university community from using Princeton's computer network for personal political discourse," general counsel Howard Ende wrote. He encouraged users to attach a disclaimer saying their views did not necessarily reflect the university's.
"In a practical sense what it means is, you can say what you like," said Princeton spokesman Justin Harmon.