In our continuing work to protect free speech in the new medium of cyberspace, the national and New Jersey offices of the ACLU recently urged Princeton Universitry officials to reconsider a policy barring students and staff from using the University computing facilities for "political purposes."
The letter was sparked by complaints the ACLU national office received over a recent memo from Princeton officials advising faculty, staff and students, "especially in this year of a presidential election," that the school's not-for-profit status barred it from allowing use of the Internet through its computer network "for political purposes."
The ACLU called this conclusion mistaken, pointing out in its letter that the Internal Revenue Code specifies that only the University itself is barred from political activity-not faculty, staff, or students acting independently. In fact, the ACLU said, the IRS has previously held that statements in support of political candidates appearing on the editorial page of a student newspaper would not be considered violations of a university's 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.
"Because there exists no legitimate reason for Princeton's blanket prohibition of political speech over the computer network," the ACLU letter stated, "it is an unjustified content-based restriction on the free expression rights of students, faculty and staff. Therefore, the policy is not only unworthy of a great university like Princeton, it is in violation of the New Jersey State Constitution." The letter was signed by ACLU national staff attorney Ann Beeson and David Rocah, staff attorney of the ACLU of New Jersey. "We understand the university's concerns about its tax-exempt status," Rocah said. "But this is free speech 101. Sadly, Princeton isn't making the grade."
"Traditionally, college campuses are the center of political discussion and debate," said national staff attorney Ann Beeson. "The fact that the debate is taking place on the Internet does not mean that the speech is any less de-serving of protection."
Beeson said the policy could bar students and staff from a wide range of expression protected by the New Jersey State Constitution, including downloading position papers from the Dole or Clinton website; sending e-mail to representatives regarding votes on bills in the House or Senate; and organizing web-sites for student chapters of politically active groups such as Greenpeace. Beeson added that the ACLU is working to develop model guidelines for colleges and universities to help sort out the confusion in academia regarding free expression on the Internet. Many schools have already put in place "Appropriate Use Policies" to police computer use, some of which violate rights of free expression, Beeson said. A clarification memo issued by Princeton officials in response to the letter sparked further criticism from the ACLU. According to the Princeton clarification, the policy was meant to prevent "personal use" of the network specifically for "campaign activities."
In a follow-up letter, the ACLU said the university's response "still falls short of constitutional requirements," and only serves to confuse the issue further. "The clarification is as clear as mud," said David Rocah. "The only thing that's clear about Princeton's policy is that it is still unconstitutional." Rocah said the policy violated free speech protections in the New Jersey state Constitution.
In its memo, Princeton conceded that the policy was "overly broad," and stated that "students, faculty and staff are generally free to communicate their personal views on political candidates using e-mail and the Internet." But officials once again cited the university's tax status as a rationale for limiting speech, warning that "the IRS may deem personal use of University resources for campaign activities, including use of the Internet, to be political campaign activity by the University itself." That interpretation is still wrong, the ACLU countered. "As we pointed out in our initial letter, Internal Revenue Service rulings make clear that only campaigning by Princeton officials on behalf of the university could affect its tax- exempt status," said national staff attorney Ann Beeson."Just as students have traditionally distributed political campaign material on the university commons, they have the right to send it through the Inter-net," Beeson added. "In fact, campaign literature is arguably the most important type of speech in our democratic system of government. There is nothing more crucial in choosing our political leaders than knowing what they stand for." Princetonofficials have agreed to meet with the ACLU lawyers this September to work out a mutually acceptable resolution.