Contents | < Browse | Browse >

    Reprinted from STReport #9.24


Monday, May 24, 1993
Page B1

INFORMATION AGE/By William M. Bulkeley

     Has political correctness gone on-line in academia?

     Battles  are  raging over  freedom  of  speech in  university-oriented
bulletin boards,  one of the few places in academia that hasn't been racked
for years by this kind of strife.

     A mild-mannered microbiologist from Rootstown,  Ohio, has stirred up a
storm  among on-line  computer users  by devising  a computer  program that
automatically wipes  out  anonymous  messages  on  Internet,  the  nation's
largest on-line network, which is widely used by scholars.  He was offended
by an  anonymous  user  who posted  a  joke about  the  last words  of  the
Challenger space shuttle crew in a scientific discussion group.

     In other cases, Canadian colleges have blocked electronic  discussions
of sex.   A California  community college recently  suspended a  journalism
professor  for running  a computer  bulletin board  on which  male students
wrote messages that allegedly  harrassed a female.

     Many on-line veterans  complain that such actions threaten  freedom of
expression.   "This  shows how the  censors are  all among  us," says Larry
Detweller, a recent graduate of Colorado State University, who studies free
speech and  "hangs around the Internet," which is often seen as a prototype
for the information  highway that  the Clinton campaign  described in  last
year's presidential election.

     Such issues  are likely to increase  as the highway connects  more and
more computers -  especially if the federal government funds  it.  In fact,
Congress has ordered a study of whether electronic bulletin boards, on-line
services and  public-access cable  television are  being used to  encourage
"crimes of hate."

     For  some time now, commercial  on-line services such  as Prodigy have
used computer  programs that  automatically  delete messages  that  contain
certain  words.  Group moderators  who often guide  discussions on services
such as H&R Block, Inc.'s CompuServe also have the power  to remove hateful
messages as soon as they see them.

     But many volunteer-run  bulletin boards decline to control what people
write.  Legally, they aren't required  to play the censor:  Board operators
aren't  responsible for things  other people write  in the wake  of a court
ruling that CompuServe wasn't liable for what people wrote any  more than a
bookseller is responsible for the contents of the books it sells.

     These cozy volunteer communities, the electronic equivalent of Boswell
and  Johnson's   18th  century   London  coffeehouses,  police   themselves
informally.   People  who are offensive  or irrelevant are  shouted down by
"flame mail," a barrage of messages by angry users that  sometimes can even
overwhelm  an offender's computer.  Other times, the indignant wage "cancel
wars" in  which they send  commands to  cancel the foe's  message from  the
bulletin board.   On Internet, people  order their computers not  to accept
any messages from particular senders.

     But a few years  ago, users developed "anonymous servers"  - computers
connected  to the  network that  stripped away  the original  sender's name
before sending  it on Internet.   The capability was  designed to encourage
open  discussion among victims  of child abuse  or AIDS and  originally was
used in  only such groups.   However, a computer in  Helsinki, Finland, was
designed to send anonymous messages wherever the sender wanted.

     Some  of these  messages on  the "sci."  section of  Internet's Usenet
subsystem  ticked off  Richard  DePew, the  professor  of microbiology  and
immunology at Northeastern  Ohio Universities  College of  Medicine.   "The
anonymous  servers were breaking down  some of the  barriers and traditions
that keep the  Internet useful," says Dr. DePew, whose  battle was reported
in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a trade weekly.

     After  numerous on-line discussions  of the  anonymous-server problem,
Dr. DePew wrote a program he called ARMM for "automated retroactive minimal
moderator."    Although the  program ran  on  the computer  he  operates in
Rootstown  as a  local  node of  Internet, it  canceled  messages from  the
Helsinki computer to any sci. discussion group.

     As soon as  he activated it  in April, Dr.  DePew was flamed  by other
users,  illustrating the passion with  which people defend computer speech.
He was called a  "maddog (sic) on the loose  who needs to be sedated."   He
was called  a "rhinocerous (sic) ."   He was compared  to "a child-molestor
(sic) who goes out and re-offends immediately upon release."  He was called
an "ignorant petty tyrant."  Within 12 hours, he shamefacedly recalled  the
program, admitting he made a mistake.  He says he will never do it again.

     In  another  controversy,  bitter  debates  raged  at  many   Canadian
universities  last   year  over   three   Internet  discussions:      "sex:
bestiality,"  "sex:    torture" and  "sex:  bondage."    Some weeks,  those
discussions  were  dominated  by  legal scholars,  but  other  weeks,  they
included brutal stories and pictures of screaming women.  Several colleges,
including Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, cut those
discussions off their computers.

     In the U.S., California's Santa Rosa Junior College recently suspended
tenured  journalism teacher  Roger  Karraker while  it  tries to  determine
whether  he's responsible for student  messages on a  school bulletin board
that he  operated.  The board has some  200 discussion groups that are used
by faculty and students.

     Earlier this  year, at student request, Mr.  Karraker started men-only
and women-only conferences in which users  had to promise not to reveal the
contents.  When  one woman  learned about what  allegedly obscene  messages
that  an  ex-boyfriend had  written  about her  on an  all-male  board, she
complained to  Mr. Karraker.   He immediately shut down  the conference and
banned the  students who  had broken the  confidentiality pact.   She  then
complained to  the college of sexual harrassment based on the messages, and
Mr. Karraker was put on paid leave.

     James Mitchell,  the college's personnel director, said  the leave was
"for  his own  protection" and  isn't  a punishment.   He  says that  under
California  harassment  laws,  "we had  a  situation  that  appeared to  be

     Mr. Mitchell says that if the item had been in a student newspaper, it
probably would have been protected under the First Amendment.   But outside
of student newspapers,  speech can  be challenged as  harassment, he  says.
Even if it was  written on a bathroom wall, and the  janitor didn't wash it
off, "we'd warn him" of the risk of harassment charges.

     Mr.  Karraker says that as  a bulletin board  operator, he's protected
just as booksellers are.  "This isn't publishing in the  sense that there's
an editor who knows everything that goes in," he says.