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/// CENSORSHIP? STR FOCUS!
Reprinted from STReport #9.24
CENSORSHIP FIGHTS HEAT UP ON ACADEMIC NETWORKS
Excerpt From THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Monday, May 24, 1993
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.